[Episcopal News Service] Advocacy for immigration detainees can take many forms, and four Episcopal priests in one New Jersey county have joined three other faith leaders to add an open-meetings law challenge to their efforts.
The seven, represented by the ACLU of New Jersey, filed a lawsuit Aug. 27 accusing the Hudson County Board of Chosen Freeholders of violating the state’s Sunshine Law when it voted to renew a 10-year contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to house in its county jail immigrant detainees who are awaiting deportation hearings. The contract earns the county millions of dollars.
The lawsuit says that the freeholders on July 10 unanimously agreed to postpone discussing and voting on whether to reauthorize for 10 more years what has become a controversial contract until the regular August meeting. The freeholders published an agenda of a July 12 meeting with the postponement noted and, the seven say, told people who arrived early to that meeting that the vote was postponed. However, after the meeting began, the board put the ICE contract back on the agenda and rapidly voted to renew it, over the opposition of two individual freeholders and those activists who happened to attend, they say.
The July 12 renewal resolution calls for ICE to pay the county $120 per detainee per day, a $10 increase from the $110 it had paid previously. Radio station WNYC reported that about two-thirds of inmates at the Hudson County Correctional Facility — 800 people — are immigration detainees.
Hudson and two neighboring counties are paid $6 million a month on ICE contracts and have collected more than $150 million since 2015, the station reported. Along with the privately-run Elizabeth Contract Detention Center, the four New Jersey facilities house approximately 2,000 immigrants.
If Hudson County’s current detainee count remains near 800, it will receive approximately $35 million a year, more than half of its total Department of Corrections budget. The freeholders predict massive layoffs at the jail or a big tax hike if the contract is severed, according to published reports.
Anthony Vainieri, a Democrat who chairs the board, has previously said that the contract allows immigrant detainees to stay close to their families and friends. Most of the detainees in the jail located in Kearny, New Jersey, are from across the Hudson River in New York. He has also said that ICE will not stop detaining people if the county stops holding them.
The first named plaintiff in the lawsuit, the Rev. Thomas Murphy, rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church and Church of the Incarnation in Jersey City, told Episcopal News Service via email that “first of all, the freeholders should void their previous vote and start over, allowing for public input about the possibility of renewing the contract with ICE.”
“My hope is that this free and open discussion will allow for reflection on whether Hudson County should be in this business at all and, especially, if the county should be profiting from the misery of the detainees.”
Murphy said that question goes to what Episcopalians mean when they repent, in the words of the confession in Enriching Our Worship 1, (page 19 here) “the evil done on our behalf.”
The Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas, rector of All Saints Episcopal Church in Hoboken and another of the plaintiffs, said in an interview with ENS that the freeholders “deliberately deceived the public about when [the contract] would be discussed and voted on.”
But there is also a larger issue, Thomas said. The advocates don’t believe that the detainees ought to be jailed while they await those deportation hearings or asylum determinations. “Hudson County is balancing their budget on the backs of detainees who are denied due process,” she said. “They’re not being given the same legal rights under ICE as anyone else that might be a prisoner there.”
However, Thomas said, “fighting that battle from a legal perspective is probably too high a bar right now.” Those who have visited with detainees say the argument about detaining them near their families does not carry much weight because families are often denied access to the jail or they live far away to begin with.
And then there are the deaths. Between June 2017 and March 2018, six people died while in the jail, the lawsuit says. The first death was a detained immigrant and, of the five others, four were by suicide. The lawsuit says the freeholders investigated and promised an overhaul of the medical care provided at the jail, arrangements of which are still being finalized.
“The Hudson County jail is just a really bad place to be,” Thomas said.
The other five religious leaders who brought the suit include the Rev. Gary Commins, an associate priest at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church and Church of the Incarnation in Jersey City; the Rev. Laurie Jean Wurm, rector of Grace Church Van Vorst in Jersey City; Ashraf Eisa, board member of the Islamic Center of Jersey City; the Rev. William Henkel, pastor of the First Reformed Church of Secaucus; and the Rev. Frances Teabout, and pastor of the Open Door Worship Center in Jersey City.
They were among 56 signers of a statement condemning the freeholders’ action. Those signers also included Diocese of Newark Bishop Mark Beckwith and Roman Catholic Archbishop of Newark Joseph Tobin. The statement was read at an Aug. 9 meeting of the board.
The signers said that they are grateful to have been given access for pastoral ministry among ICE detainees and are sensitive to the concerns that canceling the ICE contract entirely might put detainees far from lawyers, activists and family. Those concerns “should be part of a public conversation about what the county is pushing for in contract negotiations with the federal government, and how the funds that are generated from housing immigrant detainees are spent,” they wrote. “Diverting at least some of these funds to immigrant services or direct aid would be appropriate.”
The Episcopal Church’s support for immigrants, including those facing deportation, was underscored last month by the 79th General Convention, which passed multiple resolutions on immigration issues. Thomas said that the way Episcopalians have been formed in the church, especially by the baptismal covenant, “have led us to this point and I think it’s really important that people know that this is what the Episcopal Church is about. That’s our Episcopal identity.”
Thomas, who admits to being “the new kid on the block” having come to Hoboken eight months ago from St. Paul’s Memorial Church in Charlottesville, Virginia, said her involvement is “what my faith compels me to do, to stand up to powers and principalities and to advocate for humane, dignified treatment for all human beings.”
“The other component of it is that the narrative of religion, Christianity in particular, is being hijacked by a certain narrative that does not match my own.”
That narrative, she said, is centered on law and order, the attitude that might makes right, protecting borders and the need to insulate and protect. “We want people to know that there are faith leaders, and there are Christians, who believe that we’re not on the side of the rich and the powerful and the privileged but on the side of the poor and the oppressed and those who need advocates who do have the privilege and the power to do that.”
– The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is the Episcopal News Service’s senior editor and reporter.