We have a national State of Emergency and Governor Murphy has declared a state of emergency for New Jersey. Essex County has canceled most if not all public, group events in an effort to keep residents as safe as possible. The county could take one further step towards public safety by temporarily freeing the 800 immigrants that it currently holds in civil detention in the Newark jail. This is civilian, not criminal detention; they are not currently being held under any criminal charges. Thousands of people cross our southern border fleeing countries that have become unlivable. ICE imprisons as many as it can find beds for, largely for the ‘crime’ of wanting a better life. Some wind up in civil detention, as the Trump administration has made applying for asylum increasingly difficult and for many, impossible.
Jails can become Petri dishes for all kinds of diseases. In 2018, the DHS published a scathing report on unsanitary conditions in the kitchen, cells and bathrooms at the Newark jail. The county says all those problems have been corrected. But aside from the $40+ million a year contract that the county has with ICE, there is still no need to hold people in civil detention during a health crisis. At the beginning of March, Iran temporarily released 54,000 prisoners as a precautionary measure; I’m pretty sure Essex County can deal with 800. In NYC there are thousands of people wearing ankle bracelets who show up regularly for their monthly ICE check-ins. Even the ankle bracelets would be preferable to doing nothing and waiting for the first detainee to get sick… and the next, and the next.
This is a humanitarian disaster waiting to happen. Our elected officials must take action before it does.