As Trump Departs, Some Democrats May Seek Cover to Maintain Ties with ICE

Officials in a New Jersey county voted last week to renew a lucrative contract with ICE and continue detaining immigrants.

Daniel Nichanian   |    December 4, 2020

A protest for immigrants’ rights in New Jersey (B.C. Lorio/Flickr)

This article originally appeared on The Appeal, which hosted The Political Report project.

“We have to keep pushing,” said one advocate after officials in a New Jersey county voted last week to renew a lucrative contract with ICE and continue detaining immigrants.

Two years ago, faced with local anger over immigration detentions, Hudson County’s Democratic leaders promised a “path to exit” their contract with ICE by the end of 2020. ICE has long been paying this New Jersey county to supply it with jail space to detain people. But by 2018, the firestorm that President Trump’s family separation policies caused had made it difficult for county officials to stand by the agency.

It took less than a month after Trump’s loss to President-elect Joe Biden for Hudson County officials to change course and reaffirm their detention contract with ICE. The move is raising alarm among advocates that the presidential election will stretch what Democratic politicians think they can get away with, giving them cover to maintain relationships with ICE unless the public keeps up the pressure.

Hudson County’s board of freeholders—New Jersey’s term for a county commission—rushed a vote just days before Thanksgiving to extend the detention contract for another 10 years. The heated meeting featured more than 10 hours of public comment during which every participant urged freeholders to break off the arrangement and stop holding immigrants at the Hudson County Correctional Facility. Earlier this year, immigrants in the jail went on hunger strike to protest dismal conditions and a lack of protections from the novel coronavirus. Advocates have long faulted medical neglect and other inhumane conditions in this jail. 

“These contracts have been enabling the cruelty of ICE for years now,” said Amol Sinha, head of the ACLU of New Jersey. “The whole structure of immigration detention is awful to begin with. We are detaining people solely because they are suspected to be undocumented.”

Some county officials openly cited financial motivations: Hudson County receives $120 a day for each immigrant they detain, and one spokesperson said ending immigration detentions would hurt the budgetary “bottom line.” But local officials also used Trump’s loss and the change in federal leadership as a cover. On the eve of the presidential election, County Executive Tom DeGise already said that, should Biden win, “we’ll have somebody that we can talk to” when it comes to immigration detentions. 

“One of the excuses is that Biden will come in and solve our issues with detentions,” Tania Mattos, an advocate with Freedom for Immigrants who has worked to end the county’s contract, told The Appeal: Political Report. “[The election] gave a pass for the freeholders to make this decision because now they can put the responsibility of the detention centers on the Biden administration.”

“That’s wrong, in my opinion,” she added. “It’s not time to go back to sleep. We have to keep pushing.”

Katy Sastre of the New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice echoed Mattos’s warning. “What ICE represents,” she said, “doesn’t change because there’s a Democrat in office. They represent family separation, and this contract with ICE [in Hudson County] brings family separation right into our own backyard.” 

Trump’s presidency heightened the cruelties of immigration enforcement. But his unpopularity also boosted immigrants’ rights organizing and brought unprecedented attention to municipal and county governments’ long-overlooked complicity with ICE. Powerful local officials who had flown under the radar have been ousted in part over their collaboration with Trump’s immigration regime. 

From Minnesota, Maryland, and North Carolina in 2018 to Georgia, Ohio, and South Carolina this year, voters replaced sheriffs and county executives who were helping ICE with candidates who pledged to break contracts and establish protective policies. These elections were fought not just over lucrative detention contracts like Hudson County’s, but also over other deals that empower local law enforcement to arrest people they suspect to be undocumented.

Will this dynamic fizzle once Trump is out of office and the agency is overseen by a Democrat?

In conversations over the last week, immigrants’ rights advocates expressed relief that the president lost and hope that Biden will curtail some of ICE’s most aggressive practices. But they also expressed concern that it may become more difficult to hold local officials accountable for cooperating with ICE, even in the nation’s more liberal jurisdictions. Democratic officials could say that the agency they’re helping is not so bad anymore, as they did in Hudson County, and the issue of complicity with ICE could lose some of the electoral salience it acquired at the height of resistance to Trump.

“There’s no question that it is going to be harder,” Sophia Gurulé, an immigration attorney who spoke about abusive detention conditions during the freeholders’ meeting, told the Political Report. “But this is when the real grassroots organizing work is the most important. Just like people were arguing under Trump, ‘We need to end ICE detention, point blank period, there is no real justification to detain a human being for violating immigration law,’ the same argument is going to persist. And it has to keep being that same argument.”

Biden has promised a slew of reforms, including a temporary freeze on deportations, a reactivation of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), and a narrowing of ICE’s targets that may chip away at immigration detentions. 

But there are no signs that he will shut down the data streams from local agencies to ICE that help federal agents identify people who they believe to be undocumented, nor that under his leadership ICE will stop detaining people on immigration grounds. And during the Democratic primaries, some activists were wary that Biden might carry on with an approach similar to that of President Barack Obama, whose administration oversaw deportations of 3 million people.

Sastre said this week that Democratic politicians should “remember that defending a system of immigration enforcement and detention that disproportionately impacts certain communities, that is Black and brown communities, upholds ideas that voters around the country, and specifically in New Jersey, roundly rejected.”

During the Hudson County meeting, some freeholders who favored the contract argued that renewing it is in immigrants’ best interest since ICE may otherwise detain them farther away from their families and from the legal help available in New York City. Their point echoed a statement made in 2018 by legal aid groups, though these groups did not stake that same position this year. Advocates have said that public officials’ use of this argument is belied by the sorry state of detention conditions in these jails and by their financial considerations.

“I don’t have faith that the people that are making these decisions have the best interests of immigrants in mind,” Sinha said, “because even some of the county executive staff said … that they needed the money to fill the budget gap. And I think that’s one of the worst, if not the most perverse reason to detain somebody. It’s immoral and unethical to say the least.”

This week, New Jersey’s Democratic U.S. Senators, Cory Booker and Robert Menendez, called on Hudson County and its two neighboring Democrat-run counties with similar immigration detention contracts (Bergen and Essex) to break off the arrangements. Menendez, himself a former local official in Hudson County, said in a statement that these deals were a way of “taking blood money from ICE.”

These same conversations are resonating far beyond New Jersey. 

Angela Chan, the policy director for the Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Asian Law Caucus in California, helped draft the sanctuary law that California adopted in 2017, mandating that counties break their contracts with ICE. (Illinois and New Jersey adopted laws or executive measures similar to California’s, though these protections stalled in many other states.) Chan now urges people to stay vigilant about ICE’s actions, and about the relationships between their local governments and the federal agency. 

“Local and state law enforcement are the primary way community members are funneled into ICE’s inhumane immigration detention facilities and deported not just under Trump, but also Obama and likely under President-elect Biden,” she said. “In order to reduce deportations, protect due process, and keep immigrant families together, local and state law enforcement must be completely disentangled from ICE.”

Concerns aside, many of these same advocates are also hopeful that the mobilization against local cooperation with ICE will maintain momentum and pay off during Biden’s presidency.

After all, this activism far predates 2016, even if it gained new recruits during Trump’s term. Chan stressed that, even though California’s sanctuary law passed in 2017 in part because elected officials were motivated by Trump’s overt xenophobia, the state had adopted other reforms to protect immigrants earlier in the decade in response to “President Obama’s record number of deportations and the fact that ICE is a rogue agency that has committed human rights violations.” 

Going forward, Chan said, “there will continue to be community outrage and organizing.”

Gurulé is also cautiously optimistic that people will not forget what they saw in recent years. “The Trump administration … has really exposed just the total callousness and lack of humanity that ICE has for human life,” she said. “How do you scale back from that to be like, ‘Oh, well, this detention is better, or this detention isn’t so bad’? You can’t really.” 

Even over the last few years, resistance to Trump was far from the only catalyst for immigration organizing. The Black Lives Matter movement helped expose the abuses that people, including immigrants, suffer at the hands of law enforcement around the country. This strand of activism exploded in the public consciousness under Obama. And BLM protests have frequently aimed demands directly toward municipal officials in big cities who are often Democrats. The resonance of this movement, which has worked alongside immigrants’ rights organizers, should easily outlast the Trump era.

Still, to stave off any complacency that some may feel as Biden takes charge, Mattos says she would remind people that “our ultimate ask, even under Trump, even under Obama, was to end detention centers and to end the suffering and torture of people.” 

Until that’s accomplished, she added, “I would invite them to join the organizing that’s happening.”