Nearly 125 people marched to an Essex County jail Sunday afternoon in Newark, alleging county officials put money before human rights when they OK'd a contract with the federal government to house 1,250 illegal immigrants in exchange for cash.
The protesters argued the deal creates a breeding ground for inhumane treatment of the immigrant detainees.
The county's five-year contract with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement outlines a plan to house 800 of the 1,250 illegals at Essex County Correctional Facility on Doreums Avenue and the remaining 450 at Delaney Hall, a privately run prison, located on the same street. Anthony Puglisi, a county spokesman, said about 263 detainees are at Delaney Hall since the contract started Oct. 1. The deal will net Essex up to $250 million during the life of the contract.
"The county executive has come up with a concept that this is a wonderful opportunity to make money, but we feel this is making money on the backs of detainees," said Gregory Sullivan, 80, the program director of IRATE and First Friends, an advocacy group for immigrant rights. Sullivan's organization sponsored the nearly three-mile march that started at Peter Francisco Park and ended at .
At the park, the protesters listened to songs underlined with immigration themes by a Woody Guthrie cover band and held signs that read, "Immigrants are people, not commodities" and "Do not jail our neighbor." After nearly an hour at the park, the group marched for roughly two hours to the jail, chanting "Immigration, not deportation."
Kathy O'Leary, 43, who attended Sunday's march, said the contract "invites abuse" of the detainees, "The Essex County executive and the freeholders talk about incarcerating people for profit."
O'Leary, the coordinator of Pax Christi NJ, a Catholic organization advocating peace and justice, said she's met with Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo Jr. and the county freeholders to ensure detainees' rights, "We worked with the county, but there's been little movement."
To help nudge the effort, O'Leary started an online petition at Change.org to revoke the contract and implement a community oversight board at Essex County Correctional Facility. So far, more than 2,400 people have signed the document.
During the march, the immigration advocates said the contract will exacerbate the inhumane conditions already reported at the jails, including restrictions to attorneys and family.
In August, when DiVincenzo announced the deal, Alix Nguefack, detention project coordinator at American Friends Service Committee, told this Patch reporter that her organization had received complaints about access to lawyers, lack of fresh water and smaller food portions within the past year at Essex County Correctional Facility. Such information was not provided for Delaney Hall.
O'Leary said those problems can be avoided by not jailing illegals, but instead using alternative methods, such as ankle bracelets or supervised releases.
Blanca Flores, 40, of Elizabeth, said she's an undocumented immigrant who was arrested in August and ordered to wear an ankle bracelet. The El Salvador native met protesters outside Delaney Hall after she went to see her incarcerated husband.
"I want to fight for my kids and for my family," she said in Spanish to the marchers. Flores said she was ordered to wear the bracelet because her husband, also an illegal immigrant, was in jail and there was no one else to care for her two children.
Sullivan said Flores' story epitomizes the marchers' call for the county to revoke the deal.
Puglisi, said, though, that's unlikely, "There's no plans to change the contract."
— Karen Yi contributed to this report.