In 2008, there were approximately 1,000 immigrants who were being held in detention in New Jersey. In 2010, there are 1,500 immigrants currently being held for suspected immigration violations at the Elizabeth Detention Center and in five county jails (Bergen, Essex, Hudson, Monmouth and Sussex). A spike in the number of detainees was not the outcome anticipated when ICE announced a series of changes to the immigration detention system last year, with promises to move toward a less punitive model and improvements in conditions of confinement. Advocates for reform, ever vigilant, held the 12th annual Columbus Weekend vigil at the Elizabeth Detention Center, calling for the use of alternatives to immigration detention, humane conditions, and the end to the mass detention of immigrants.
The vigil was part of a nationwide demonstration by individuals and groups (such as Detention Watch Network and Casa Esperanza) to mark the one-year anniversary of the detention reform announcement by the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). "Recent improvements in our detention system, particularly in the treatment of asylum seekers, do not alter the fact that ICE under Obama has continued the Bush administration's 'enforcement only' policy initiated in 2007," said Greg Sullivan, Program Director at IRATE & First Friends, a non-profit organization that upholds the inherent humantity and dignity of all immigrants. "ICE needs an effective risk assessment system that limits incarceration to the very small minority of immigrants who are truly a risk to the community. We must continue to demand that the administration make its detention and deportation policy uniformly humane and end enforcement practices that not only increase the use of a costly detention system, but also misuse scarce resources that should be spent protecting public safety."
Despite some positive changes, overall conditions remain relatively unchanged, and use of enforcement policies that lead to detention and deportation are on the rise. Other negative changes include:
- The increased use of county jails. As of April 2009, 67% of detainees were now being held in criminal jails. Detainees are usually segregated from criminal populations; however, they are subject to the same restrictions as criminals but with fewer rights. Also, advocates observe, that detainees at the Hudson Country Correctional Center are held for much longer periods than at the Elizabeth Detention Center, greater delays in court hearings and less opportunity for parole.
- Increased use of local law enforcement. In July 2009, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano announced plans to expand the rollout of the 287(g) "Secure Communities" programs. These programs enlist state and local units in efforts to identify and arrest immigrants subject to deportation, further feeding the people into the detention system and taxing already scarce resources for public safety.
- Plans for further expand detention facilities. In August 2009, John Morton announced that ICE has no intention of reducing its level of detention and deportation and would seek to gain new, larger facilities (1,000 plus beds) throughout the country. Meanwhile, ICE officers through their union denounce moves to liberalize arrest and detention policies.
- The continued deportation of non-criminal immigrants. According to a recent article in the Star Ledger, despite ICE's claims that the majority of those who are now being detained and deported are those with criminal backgrounds, an analysis of data for New Jersey shows that 64% of those who are being deported from the state have no criminal history whatsoever.
Arlene M. Roberts is the author of The Faces of Detention and Deportation: A Report on the Forced Repatriation of Immigrants from the English-speaking Caribbean.