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Ruling Allows New Jersey’s Last ICE Jail to Remain Open Despite State Ban 

Biden supported a private prison company’s suit to keep the jail open, but immigrant rights activists aren’t giving up.

People protest outside the Elizabeth Detention Center during a rally attended by immigrant residents and activists on February 23, 2017, in Elizabeth, New Jersey.

Immigrant rights activists in New Jersey are facing a challenge. August 31 was supposed to be the day that the state’s last remaining Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention center finally closed. Instead, CoreCivic — the private prison company that runs the center — sued to keep the center open, and President Biden publicly came out on CoreCivic’s side. On August 29, two days before CoreCivic’s contract was set to expire, a federal judge ruled to keep the center open.

The immigrant rights movement has not taken this development passively. Leading up to the ruling, various organizations and activists in the state mobilized to defend our immigrant neighbors and our right to ban ICE detention centers. Actions included activists packing the court to oversee the legal proceedings, and a rally outside the disputed detention center on August 20: the two-year anniversary of the state government codifying that it would not renew contracts to hold people detained by ICE.

At this rally, dozens of activists — including one of the authors of this piece — gathered outside the detention center in Elizabeth to reflect on the successes we’ve achieved so far, denounce the injustices detained immigrants are subjected to, and build connections with one another that will be essential to successfully see this fight through to the end and ban the last remaining ICE detention center in our state.

However, our struggle must be seen in the larger context of a Biden administration which has continued the war on immigrants that we saw under the Trump administration, while being met with far less opposition than during the previous administration. This is not just a battle for immigrant rights within New Jersey — it’s an important example for immigrant rights activists throughout the country, with national implications.

Our opponents understand the implications of us achieving our demands. One of the main reasons the judge sided with CoreCivic is because, in his words, the closure of the center in Elizabeth would be “catastrophic” because it could set an example for the rest of the country. Biden’s reasons for backing CoreCivic also show the strategic importance of the center for the larger operations of ICE and the federal government. A legal filing issued by the U.S. Department of Justice argues that, “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… those severe impacts will become catastrophic.”

Multiple state representatives and even Senator Bob Menendez have called on the Department of Justice to rescind its support for CoreCivic. This is not surprising: New Jersey Democrats have generally been to the left of Democratic Party leaders on the issue of immigration — largely due to pressure from state activists. At the same time, these Democrats’ role in the movement directs our activity towards a less-combative approach, one which puts activists’ faith in the institutions of the very capitalist government that is waging war on immigrants.

The Democratic Party is, at its core, a capitalist party which exists to serve capitalist interests. Capitalism does not benefit from full rights for migrants because these rights make immigrants a less exploitable and more expensive source of labor. To wage a fight for full rights for migrants at both the state and national levels, it is essential that activists understand these class interests and organize accordingly.

We Need a Combative Movement Independent of the Capitalists

To win this fight, we need a clear, strategic perspective: the Biden administration is our enemy, and it will not be moved by moral appeals. What can pressure the administration to concede is the very strategy that successfully banned three other ICE detention centers in New Jersey: an uncompromising movement from below.

In Hackensack, activists were chased through the streets by cops with smoke grenades before the state finally closed the ICE center at Bergen County Jail. And before the conflict built to that point, there was the essential self-organization of activists coming day after day, blocking vans and disrupting operations of the jail. The Elizabeth detention center was the site of just as dynamic opposition from the movement, with hundreds of activists rallying outside the facility in 2019.

Most importantly, the protests in New Jersey continued even after Biden was elected president on false promises that he would be a lesser evil to immigrants. Rather than take his word for it or put our faith in Democrats to fight ICE, we trusted our own power and community to demand freedom for our immigrant neighbors. We will have to build this power amongst ourselves once again.

The New Jersey state attorney general has already announced that the state will appeal the judge’s decision. This is important, but what matters most is that activists keep the fight up, continuing to show up for court proceedings and publicize how the suit develops, and take to the streets to disrupt attempts to keep the facility open. As this most recent ruling and the anti-democratic nature of the Supreme Court and its increasingly Far-Right agendashows, we should not trust the courts to serve us unless we make them.

Because capitalism wages war on migrants to keep workers divided and keep a sector of the working class more exploitable, the labor movement and organized workers have an important role to play in this struggle. Already we’ve seen an important example of the type of worker solidarity that could strengthen the movement against the war on immigrants. The Rutgers graduate student workers union, which waged a historic strike earlier this year, endorsed the recent rally to shut down the Elizabeth detention center. Imagine if this union, and others, organized work stoppages and pickets to demand that the Elizabeth detention center shut down.

Waging a Fight at the National Level

A combative movement in New Jersey alone is not enough. The immigrant rights movement is much stronger when it is able to take the struggle nationwide, and make the demand to not only end all ICE facilities in the United States, or New Jersey much less, but to abolish ICE and all borders. The Democratic Party exists precisely to prevent the kind of militancy and tenacity that forced the New Jersey legislature to close the ICE facilities in the first place. The activism and militancy we saw in New Jersey in the past shows the building blocks of how to actually fight at a national level.

Organizing ourselves on a national or even international scale could be aided by the existence of a party that represents the immigrant rights movement. An independent, working-class party could unite the struggles of workers throughout New Jersey and the country, building vital solidarity between immigrant workers and workers born in the United States. Such a party, independent of the capitalists, could popularize combative demands at the national level that not only uplift immigrant rights, but also take aim at the capitalist system which creates the very conditions for migration and relies on oppressive laws and armed bodies to keep migrant workers in a constant state of precarity. While the Democratic Party exists to misdirect social movements and prevent militancy, a working-class party could be active in and provide a political compass to class struggle at the national level.

Despite the limitations that our movement currently faces, New Jersey activists have come far in our fight to abolish ICE and advance the rights of our immigrant neighbors. This recent ruling is not the end, but instead a reminder that we must be uncompromising in our fight and set an example for the immigrant rights movement across the country.

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