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November 17, 2016

Detention of Asylum Seekers in New Jersey

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In October 2016 Human Rights First visited the Essex County Correctional Facility, Hudson County Correctional Facility, and Elizabeth Detention Center, the three principal facilities used by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to detain immigrants in New Jersey. The Elizabeth Detention Center, operated by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), has the capacity to hold 304 people (275 men and 29 women). The Essex County and Hudson County facilities, county jails that rent space to ICE, have capacity to hold up to 700 and 476 ICE detainees, respectively, and generally hold only men, though Essex County has in the past held immigrant women as well. A fourth facility, the Delaney Hall Detention Facility, held primarily immigrants with low-level criminal charges until it was closed in June 2016, reportedly due to a dispute over staff wages.

Over the course of fiscal year 2015, more than 5,000 people passed through the Essex County, Hudson County, and Elizabeth facilities combined, and an additional 1,100 were detained at the former Delaney Hall facility. Many were seeking asylum or other forms of humanitarian protection. While ICE has failed to provide timely data on its detention of asylum seekers, the most recent data indicates that nearly 2,500 asylum seekers were held in New Jersey detention centers in 2014. That number has likely increased, based on trends observed by Human Rights First and other legal organizations serving immigrants detained in New Jersey.

Human Rights First has provided pro bono legal representation to asylum seekers detained in New Jersey for over twenty years. Based on pro bono legal representation experience, as well as monitoring visits to the three facilities and in-depth research on detention of asylum seekers in the United States, we report the following:

  • ICE rarely grants parole to arriving asylum seekers, even when they appear to meet the criteria outlined in ICE’s 2009 Asylum Parole Directive, and often fails to properly implement required procedural steps, such as conducting parole interviews within seven days of a positive credible fear finding and issuing a written decision. Moreover, arriving asylum seekers are denied access to immigration court custody (bond) hearings.
  • Immigrants detained in New Jersey who do have access to immigration court custody reviews are often required to pay bond amounts they cannot afford as a condition of release.
  • Many asylum seekers remain in prolonged detention—often for six to eight months or more—due to their lack of access to viable release mechanisms.
  • Access to counsel remains a challenge, particularly at the Essex County facility, where various barriers impede attorney-client communications; many asylum seekers and other immigrants lack legal counsel, though recent initiatives have improved representation rates in New Jersey.
  • The conditions in the three facilities—one operated by a private prison company and the other by counties—are essentially identical to those in in many criminal correctional facilities, with asylum seekers and other immigrants made to wear prison uniforms, strip-searched when permitted contact visitation (at two of the facilities), and denied meaningful outdoor recreation.