The Biden administration is siding with a private prison corporation’s legal effort to keep an immigration detention center in Elizabeth from shuttering, claiming its impending closure would be “catastrophic” to federal immigration efforts.
The U.S. Department of Justice in a Wednesday legal filing calls New Jersey’s 2021 law banning all immigration detention contracts — the agency refers to the law as AB 5207 — unconstitutional and says closing the Elizabeth facility would harm the federal government amid an influx of migrants and closures of other detention centers around the nation.
“The lack of detention resources in New Jersey has already had a severe impact on national security, public safety and border security operations in a critical area of the nation. And if the Elizabeth facility is forced to close due to AB 5207, those severe impacts will become catastrophic,” wrote Robert Guadian, deputy assistant director for field operations at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
CoreCivic, the world’s largest private prison operator, runs the Elizabeth Detention Center, the only facility in New Jersey that still holds a contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to house immigrant detainees, a pact that is set to expire Aug. 31. CoreCivic in February filed a lawsuit against the state calling the 2021 New Jersey law unconstitutional, and it wants the judge overseeing the case to bar the state from enforcing the law as the case winds its way through the courts.
In the Wednesday filing — known as a statement of interest — attorneys for the Department of Justice say the judge can issue a permanent injunction in favor of CoreCivic.
They call the Elizabeth facility “mission critical” because of its proximity to Newark and JFK airports, which offer regular direct flights out of the United States and are “crucial” for removals, the filing says. It also says shutting down the center would lead to the possible release of “dangerous noncitizens.”
Without the Elizabeth facility, ICE would not only have to transport migrants to other facilities outside of New Jersey, but it would also spend more on agents’ overtime pay and travel expenses. The ICE facility in Pennsylvania is a four-hour drive from Newark airport, which would create 12-hour days for officers, according to Wednesday’s filing.
The federal government agrees with CoreCivic’s complaint that the state law violates the Constitution’s supremacy clause, which bars states from passing laws overriding federal statutes. A California law banning private, for-profit prisons and immigration detention facilities was gutted by a federal appeals court last year for violating the supremacy clause.
“New Jersey may prohibit immigration detention for those in its own custody, but it has no lawful interest in imposing that choice on the United States,” Wednesday’s filing says.
A coalition of advocacy groups called the federal government’s decision to side with CoreCivic “bitterly disappointing but unsurprising.” In a statement, they called on Gov. Phil Murphy and all elected officials to speak out against the Biden administration’s “attempt to undermine New Jersey values.”
Immigrant advocates spent years calling on officials to shut down New Jersey’s ICE detention sites — there were four until 2021, three of them at county jails — leading the state Legislature to pass a bill barring all state, county, and local agencies, including private detention facilities, from renewing, extending, or entering into new immigration detention agreements. While the bill awaited Murphy’s signature in 2021, ICE and CoreCivic renewed their contract for two years.
That left the Elizabeth Detention Center as the last immigrant detention center open in New Jersey. It can house about 300 detainees, and housed an average daily population of 156 people so far in 2023, according to ICE.
Activists want immigrant detainees to be released back to their families. But ICE will try to relocate detainees outside of New Jersey if the Elizabeth center closes, which the agency concedes will limit access to families and counsel and also slow immigration proceedings.
If other states pass laws similar to New Jersey’s, it would have a “near catastrophic impact on ICE’s ability to meet its mission,” attorneys for the federal government said in Wednesday’s filing.
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