Over 100 advocates gathered outside the Elizabeth Detention Center, the only remaining Immigration and Customs Enforcement (I.C.E.) detention facility in New Jersey, to commemorate the first anniversary of a landmark bill to ban detention agreements.
"One year ago today, immigrants in New Jersey made national headlines after we secured a victory that dealt a serious blow to I.C.E.'s detention system and enforcement reach. Immigrants brought the fight from within the walls of detention centers straight to the halls of the Trenton statehouse to deliver a ban on I.C.E. detention agreements," said Amy Torres from New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice. "It was the organizing prowess of immigrants that positioned New Jersey as one of just a handful of states to prohibit I.C.E. detention agreements. We led the East Coast as the first state to have such a ban and since have been joined by others in introducing or passing similar measures. The call for immigrant justice will not be ignored."
The law that enacted the ban barred future I.C.E. detention contracts, but the political windfall from the decision ultimately led to the closure of three county detention centers in the state.
Hudson, Essex, and Bergen County jails have all ended their I.C.E. detention agreements. Although the bill passed the legislature in June of 2021, the Elizabeth Detention Center quietly extended its contract before Governor Murphy signed the bill into law in August.
The contract is now slated to end in late summer 2023. Community members impacted by I.C.E.'s presence in New Jersey spoke about the need to release those detained and provide greater protections to immigrants.
"When I was detained at the Elizabeth Detention Center after a workplace raid, I worried I would never see my daughters' smiling faces again. No one should have to experience that fear. No one should be detained or incarcerated in the Garden State. We demand the closure of the Elizabeth I.C.E. detention center and the immediate release of all detainees. If New Jersey is to live up to its promise as a fair and just state, we must pass the Values Act immediately so that no one has to face what I did," said Jenny, a spokesperson from Make the Road NJ
"A year ago, New Jersey took a step in ending detention and demonstrating that it is not a practice that is fair or humane to our immigrant friends. Although three of the four centers no longer detain our friends, the Elizabeth Detention Center continues to incarcerate our friends and strip them from their freedom. We will continue to push for justice for our friends until each of them is released and they are treated with the justice and dignity they deserve," said Jackie Zapata with First Friends of New Jersey and New York
New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice (N.J.A.I.J.), the state's largest immigration coalition, hosted a rally featuring individuals and families impacted by I.C.E. enforcement, performers, organizers, and advocates at the Elizabeth Detention Center to commemorate the anniversary.
The crowd used the moment to call the community to action, advocating for greater protections that systematically address how immigrants are targeted by and vulnerable to I.C.E. arrest, namely through The Values Act (S512/A1986), a State bill, and federal reforms, like the New Way Forward Act (H.R. 536).
"No human being should live with the anxiety that we could get separated from our families for simply going to work or dropping our children at school. It takes an emotional toll on everyone and is a feeling you never forget. Before New Jersey O.A.G.'s Immigrant Trust Directive in our community, we were constantly afraid that someone in our family would question our immigration status because that could mean being deported. The Values Act will make the safety and security of the Immigrant Trust Directive permanent. We remember what that was like before the Directive, and we won't go back," said Ana Cerrato, a Wind of the Spirit Immigrant Resource Center member.
"New Jersey's ban on I.C.E. contracts – now one year old – stands as an important milestone for respecting the rights and dignity of immigrant communities. But at the same time, more action is urgently needed to ensure that our state is fairer and more welcoming to all New Jerseyans, regardless of immigration status. The Values Act will further our state's commitment to drawing a clear line between state and local government and the federal deportation machine. Alongside our partners in the immigrants' rights community, we continue to call on our state representatives to pass the Values Act," said Ami Kachalia from the ACLU-NJ.
"Today, we rally to celebrate and remember the passage of the anti-detention law signed by Governor Murphy on the same day last year. We celebrate that Elizabeth Detention Center, run by Core-Civic, is the only remaining detention facility in N.J. and will finally close next year," Glendy Tsitouras, Community Organizer with the American Friends Service Committee. "But we must call for a pathway to permanent residency, protection for our community, and an end to collaborations between local law enforcement agencies and I.C.E. Passing the Values Act will be a big step towards making N.J. a safe place to live for everyone."
"Today's anniversary is a testament to New Jersey's progress toward becoming a fair and welcoming state for all," said Nicole Rodriguez, President of New Jersey Policy Perspective (N.J.P.P.). "But more must be done. Immigration detention is unjust and does irreparable harm to our families and communities. It's time state lawmakers address how people end up in this system by barring collaboration, keeping our data safe, and restoring confidence in public programs and services."
Throughout the demonstration, speakers reminded the audience of immigrants' growing power and organizing strength. Grassroots organizing groups, including Unidad Latino en Accion, New Jersey Sanctuary Coalition, Palestinian American Community Center, and C.A.T.A. Farmworkers Association, led chants throughout the rally, and attendees were joined in a performance by The Filthy Rotten System Band.
"At P.A.C.C., we represent a group of people who have too often been unjustly displaced and scattered around the world either as refugees or documented or undocumented immigrants, with no other choice but to do so. We understand what it means to be forced out of your homes for reasons beyond your control, to start all over in a country that looks down on you just because of your race or citizenship status. We understand and have experienced the harm of globalized borders that aim to restrict and tear apart families. Everyone deserves a chance to live peacefully, with pride and respect. We must keep advocating for protections like the Values Act and freeing everyone harmed by detention and border enforcement. We have a lot more work to do internally, locally, state-wide, and nationally, and we are ready and confident that we can achieve true justice collectively," said Abire Sabbagh from Palestinian American Community Center
"Today, we stand in front of the Elizabeth Detention Center in solidarity with our community members who are detained and separated from their families because of a broken immigration system – a system that profits from incarcerating immigrants because they cross a border criminalizes our people. As we get to this one-year anti-detention ban here in New Jersey, we demand to stop any more arrests and to close those existing contracts that daily detain our people. We are not money, we are human beings!” said Ana Paola Pazmino from Unidad Latina en Accion NJ
"Lawmakers treat immigrant justice issues like they're radioactive, claiming that because some immigrants can't vote, that our issues aren't important. But many of New Jersey's immigrants are rapidly becoming naturalized citizens and a growing number of children live in immigrant households. Lawmakers represent more than just the people that vote for them. In a state where nearly a quarter of us are immigrants, it's time they start paying attention," said Charlene Walker of Faith in New Jersey.
As the demonstration ended, speakers reminded the crowd that federal immigration reform and deportation relief remains an unfulfilled promise since the change in administration in 2021 and that more must be done to push New Jersey's state lawmakers to take action.
"We don't know if or how the political climate will change with the midterm elections, but we do know that many of the promises made to our communities in 2020 were broken," said Laura Bustamante of New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice. "New Jersey is one of the most diverse states in the nation, with half of our population being made up of people of Color. If we want to change, it's on New Jersey's own legislators to make it, and we will not stop fighting until our communities see the justice, protections, and dignity we deserve."