Drivers protest ICE detention in Essex County

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NEWARK, NJ — Social distancing guidelines are preventing gatherings from happening but not preventing protests from happening. Members of the New Jersey Advocates for Immigrant Detainees circled around the federal building and the Essex County Jail in Newark on April 1, in their cars, asking state and county officials to release immigrants who are being detained and people incarcerated in the jail to protect them from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“They’re not given gloves or masks on a regular basis,” Kathy O’Leary, a member of NJAID and a region coordinator for Pax Christi USA, a nonprofit Catholic peace movement, said in a phone interview on April 3. “And then you add in COVID-19. There are people who have fevers, and they cannot self-isolate. If someone coughs, there’s no one who is safe.”

O’Leary pointed out that many people think of the jail as a locked-up, separate facility, but because there are corrections officers, nurses and other staff members who go home every day, there is the potential to spread the virus further. Releasing detainees would help to flatten the curve of people being infected with the coronavirus.

“There are people working there that go home to their families, who might be essential workers themselves,” O’Leary said. “We’re doing this for the people in the jail, but also for the community.”

She and the other members of NJAID called on Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo Jr., Gov. Phil Murphy and ICE Field Office Director John Tsoukaris to release the detainees, which they can do with an executive order. Murphy ordered schools and nonessential businesses to close with the signing of Executive Orders 107 and 108, but the orders did not include detention centers or jails. DiVincenzo declined to comment in an email on April 6.

“Murphy could issue another executive order and say, ‘We need to empty the jails,’” O’Leary said. “We’re going to pressure him until everyone is released. If he doesn’t want to issue an executive order, he needs to pressure the federal government.”

Jay Arena, another member of NJAID who drove in the protest, said Murphy or DiVincenzo ending the county’s contract with ICE is important regardless of the pandemic, but even more pressing because of it. 

“We think it’s important to release these detainees to protect them from a death sentence,” Arena said in a phone interview on April 3. “It’s best practices to prevent the spread of the virus. We’re defending public health.”

New Jersey Chief Justice Stuart Rabner signed an order to release nonviolent offenders from county jails across the state on March 23; in an emailed statement on April 6, Essex County Freeholder President Brendan Gill said he supports the order.

“We are in the midst of a worldwide pandemic that, if gone unchecked, can result in the deaths of millions of American citizens. Every citizen, every government official, and every government organization, including law enforcement and corrections, needs to look at their decision-making process through this prism. I supported the decision by New Jersey Chief Justice Stuart Rabner to sign an order releasing nonviolent offenders from jails across the state,” Gill said. “Additionally, I join Sen. Robert Menendez, Sen. Cory Booker and others in calling on Immigration and Customs Enforcement to release nonviolent offenders from their custody in an effort to save as many lives as possible from the COVID-19 crisis.”

The 30 cars that participated in the protest drove around the buildings and honked their horns, with occupants yelling as loudly as they could, the goal being to be heard by the people inside. Both Arena and O’Leary said they were successful.

“Under the circumstances, that’s the way we’re able to do this,” Arena said. “We do know they could hear us.”

During the protest, people who have family members in the jail shared stories of the communication they’ve been able to have with people inside, and O’Leary said some have been sending packages of Advil to help with spiking fevers. Still, O’Leary said, it’s not enough.

“Sheriff Fontoura and DiVincenzo both tested positive for the virus, and that’s very scary,” O’Leary said. “We hope for a speedy recovery for them. But they were able to get tested. We hope that they have sympathy and empathy for folks in detention and in jail, too. Whatever your sentence was, it shouldn’t be converted to a death sentence.”

Photos Courtesy of Kathy O’Leary