In New Jersey, Activists Are Learning What “Abolish ICE” Means in the Biden Era

Post-Trump, immigrant justice is far out of the spotlight. But many immigrant rights activists, like those organizing to shutter a dismal ICE facility in Elizabeth, New Jersey, haven't given up, despite a tough slog of fighting the Trump-like policies of Joe Biden.

Immigrant rights protesters march through the streets of Minneapolis, Minnesota on June 30, 2018. Fibonacci Blue / Wikimedia Commons

Resistance to immigrant detention in New Jersey will end where it began, in a desolate industrial district on the periphery of Elizabeth, a mid-sized working-class city just south of Newark. There, in 1995, detainees at the Esmor detention center made national news rioting against the inhumane conditions they faced. A quarter-century later, what is now the Elizabeth Detention Center (EDC) stands as the last ICE jail in New Jersey.

As such, it provides a valuable window into the movement to abolish ICE in the Biden era. New Jersey drew national attention when three of its four ICE jails closed in 2021, the result of a years-long grassroots struggle.

But at a time when the Biden administration’s immigration policies barely differ from many of Trump’s, the media attention and the mass rallies of the Trump years have faded from sight, and the very coiner of the phrase “Abolish ICE” has abandoned it to promote faux-progressive politicians, the uphill struggle to actually abolish ICE and the prison-industrial complex that spawned it continues outside the spotlight.

A History of Brutality

EDC’s origins are sordid even by the standards of the private prison boom of the 1980s and ’90s. James Slattery and Morris Horn perfected the art of profiting from human misery while running “one of the most notorious welfare hotels in New York City.” Expanding their skill set into carceral entrepreneurship, they founded Esmor Correctional Services Corporation, and after running some crassly exploitative halfway houses, they won a government contract for immigrant detention.

From the start, EDC earned a reputation for cruelty, which resulted in the 1995 uprising by its three hundred detainees. Women prisoners complained about sexual abuse and guards spying on them in showers, while men told of being chained to toilets, degraded with ethnic slurs, and physically abused. When they set up a barricade inside the facility, police eventually lobbed a flash grenade at it and charged, injuring twenty. Protesters’ demands included “we need our freedom” and “we should not be used as an avenue to acquire wealth.”

In the flurry of negative press following the riot, the government simply shifted its contract from Esmor (which was eventually absorbed into GEO Group) to the Corrections Corporation of America, which rebranded itself as CoreCivic in 2016. A lawsuit led by Somali refugee Hawa Jama dragged on for a full decade, though she eventually won $100,000 in a groundbreaking case. Inhumane treatment, however, continued unabated.

In 1999, Palestinian Salah Dafali was beaten so badly that he required hospitalization; the FBI investigated, to little avail. Boubacar Bah, a tailor from Guinea, was shackled and placed in solitary confinement for thirteen hours after falling and injuring his head in 2007; he died comatose from brain hemorrhaging. Victor Ramirez-Reyes, a fifty-six-year-old Ecuadorian, died of preventable heart disease after medical neglect in 2011. The stories of abuse continued piling up.

Abolishing ICE in New Jersey

The story of grassroots immigrant justice and anti-ICE activism in New Jersey deserves a book of its own, but the critical distinction that sets it apart from similar work elsewhere is that the overwhelming majority of immigrant detention nationally is conducted in privately run facilities, while in New Jersey it took place largely in county jails. EDC was the exception; by the 2010s, the Essex, Hudson, and Bergen county jails were the sites for most ICE detention in the state.

Opposition to these lucrative arrangements ran through the Bush and Obama eras but exploded under Trump, driven by the hypocrisy of officials from deep-blue districts speaking the language of “resistance” while funding their counties through the boon that Trump’s racism provided. For years, activists from a variety of groups flooded county government meetings and engaged in civil disobedience and direct action, sometimes meeting violent police repression. When COVID-19 arrived, detainees put their bodies on the line with hunger strikes, and the Abolish ICE-New York/New Jersey coalition helped transmit their harrowing testimony to the outside.

It often felt hopeless. New Jersey’s county machines are insulated from democratic accountability, and at a November 2020 Hudson County commissioners meeting, every single one of over one hundred speakers called against continuing their ICE contract. The commissioners renewed it anyway, for up to ten years. When protesters congregated on the sidewalk outside county executive Tom DeGise’s house in Jersey City, he convinced a judge to issue a restraining order and had several people arrested (the order wasn’t overturned until summer 2022).

But then a major victory against ICE in New Jersey came in August 2021, when New Jersey banned new or extended contracts with ICE. One by one, the county jails “depopulated” themselves of ICE detainees — a major victory, even if Biden and ICE ignored calls for releases rather than transfers, sending many detainees to upstate New York.

This left only EDC. In 2018, a Democratic congressional contingent showed up on Father’s Day to bang on doors and denounce Trump, but most movement participants recognized it as a performative stunt to draw attention to the only ICE jail not run by their fellow Democrats. (New Jersey congressional reps have had very little to say about EDC since it stopped serving as a Trump symbol and became Biden-run.) The next year, the Jewish-led Never Again Action launched its national campaign at EDC, in collaboration with immigrant-led Movimiento Cosecha. Thirty-six protesters were arrested.

In May 2020, sharp-eyed anti-carceral activists spotted another angle: in a case egregious even by ICE’s lawless standards, the agency disregarded a federal judge to deport Hector Garcia Mendoza to Mexico after the EDC detainee had the courage to sign his name to a class-action lawsuit calling for the release of everyone held there when the safety precautions in the early days of the pandemic proved inadequate. (Mendoza promptly went missing, and many presumed him dead. He briefly reappeared months later before losing contact again and is most likely trapped somewhere doing forced labor.) When activists protested outside EDC — some of the first in-person actions of the pandemic — one of the owners of the building appeared with police, trying unsuccessfully to break up the action.

Suddenly, a new target appeared: Elberon Development Group, which has long leased the building itself to CoreCivic.

Its owner and chairman Anne Evans Estabrook and her son Dave Gibbons (president and CEO) are deeply connected to the New Jersey arts and culture world, so after careful power-mapping, a campaign to embarrass and pressure them developed: protesting outside their corporate office, a major rally during the New Jersey Performing Arts Center’s annual gala in Newark (Estabrook sits on the board), student and alum-led protest at Kean University, where both sit in honorary positions.

The pressure worked — to an extent. In May 2021, Elberon filed suit to break its lease, accusing CoreCivic of failing to maintain conditions of COVID-19 safety. Unfortunately, Governor Phil Murphy waited nearly two months to sign the bill ending ICE detention into law, during which time ICE renewed its contract with CoreCivic to run EDC through August 2023.

CoreCivic is fighting to continue the lease. At a shareholders meeting, its president assured investors it had a unilateral right to extend the lease through 2027. Kathy O’Leary, a leader of the Catholic radical peace organization Pax Christi who has watched the case closely, is not optimistic about its outcome, since it hinges on ICE detention standards and CDC guidelines that are unlikely to prove legally compelling.

The State of the Movement

Still, EDC will presumably close when CoreCivic’s ICE contract expires. Many in the immigrant justice community have faith in New Jersey’s law, but some express doubts. O’Leary notes that in the current lawsuit with its landlord, CoreCivic might be setting itself up for legal arguments for its right to remain. In California, the fellow prison profiteer GEO Group has had some success in challenging the state’s private prison ban for immigrant detention facilities (that case is ongoing). While ICE confirmed the imminent termination of the contract, CoreCivic’s spokesman declined to confirm their own expectation of closure.

Nobody expects New Jersey Democrats to spend political capital on EDC. Those who were so outraged during the Trump years have stopped talking about immigration. The liberals who joined with ICE abolitionists against Trump have shifted focus to the January 6th hearings and the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade reversal, and Biden is all but silent.

New Jersey’s immigrant demographics include robust African and Afro-Caribbean communities Serges Demefack, an organizer with the American Friends Service Committee, says they are aware of the administration’s persistent racism in immigration policy. Deportations and border violence directed at Haitians mark this, but so too does Biden’s disregard for the ongoing violence in Demefack’s native Cameroon.

So what does “abolish ICE” mean in the Biden era? Direct action continues, from vigils outside EDC to canvassing in Elizabeth by North Jersey Democratic Socialists of America. Demefack and O’Leary both agree that ICE detention is just one node in a larger nexus of carceral cashflow that plagues New Jersey (committed to incarceration as a revenue stream, the county jails now import inmates from elsewhere in the state) and calls for even broader prison abolitionist horizons. At the New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice, executive director Amy Torres points to the state Values Act, which would severely restrict law enforcement cooperation with ICE. Torres argues that the Values Act aligns with radical goals: “It’s not enough to close jails, we need to starve these sites of people and break the pipelines” that feed them.

For now, the struggle continues. If EDC actually closes next year, it will put New Jersey at the forefront of immigrant justice. If CoreCivic wiggles its way around the state law, anti-carceral activists are ready for what could be a decisive Biden-era immigration justice showdown.