Immigrant Detainees Held by ICE Are Going On Hunger Strikes Immigrant detainees in the U.S. are often illegally held in county jails by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. Activists in New York and New Jersey want ICE to release detainees now.
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Immigrant Detainees Held by ICE Are Going On Hunger Strikes

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Immigrant Detainees Held by ICE Are Going On Hunger Strikes

Immigrant Detainees Held by ICE Are Going On Hunger Strikes

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SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

Immigration and Customs Enforcement will soon operate under a new administration. President-elect Joe Biden has promised to return to quote, "sensible enforcement policies." But that change will take time. Right now in New York and New Jersey, activists do not want to wait. They are calling on ICE to release undocumented immigrants from jail. That's led to clashes with police, hunger strikes and a restraining order. From member station WNYC, Matt Katz reports.

MATT KATZ, BYLINE: Right after the election, I started getting calls from immigrants like Carlos Gomez. He was on hunger strike at New Jersey's Bergen County Jail, which has a multimillion-dollar contract with ICE to hold detainees.

CARLOS GOMEZ: Oh, it's just horrible. It's just - you know, you feel dizzy. It seems like they don't care about us.

KATZ: Immigrant detainees say they're being mistreated, and they're scared of getting the coronavirus. The first COVID-19 case in ICE detention was reported here. The detainees are demanding immediate release. They say they could be given monitoring bracelets to make sure they show up to immigration hearings. Frederic Badji told me he hadn't eaten for nine days.

FREDERIC BADJI: There are human beings right now in the United States that are being treated very badly simply because they don't have a paper that states that they are U.S. citizens.

KATZ: Gomez, Badji and other immigrant detainees in the country illegally are often held by ICE in county jails. Many have lived here for decades and have U.S. citizen spouses and kids. Some were transferred from prison after they finished sentences for crimes. Last month, rabbis took notice of the hunger strikers and began praying outside the Bergen County Jail. Racial justice activists soon joined them.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Free them now.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Chanting) Free them all.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Free them now.

KATZ: This wasn't something that Bergen County, a wealthy Democratic suburb, usually experiences. But the protests are now held almost daily, with live music and occasional confrontations with the police. One night earlier this month, officers in riot armor arrested nine activists. Sheriff Anthony Cureton appeared before television cameras the next day and alleged that protesters actually bit two officers.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANTHONY CURETON: It was not a productive act of political expression. What we saw yesterday was not, in the words of my hero John Lewis, good trouble.

KATZ: The sheriff is a Democrat who said he opposes President Trump's strict immigration policies, but he argued that detainees are treated well in the county jail. In Bergen and other nearby counties, local officials also defend the lucrative ICE contracts. They say these deals help offset property taxes and provide jobs. Cureton's department gets $110 a day per immigrant it holds for ICE. Next door in Hudson County, immigrant advocates bombarded Zoom meetings of the all-Democratic governing board after it voted last month to extend its ICE contract 10 years.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

ANDREW ZHANG: You just love that money, right? You just love the money. They don't accept money where you're going, though.

MICHAEL WATSON: Y'all make me sick, you know? What is there to say?

DANIELLE HARARI: You should be ashamed of yourselves. Shame, shame, shame.

KATZ: That was Andrew Zhang, Michael Watson and Danielle Harari. Tensions are high throughout the region. Six protesters rallying in Manhattan for ICE detainees were injured after a woman drove her car through the crowd. In New Jersey, local officials filed a restraining order against activists. Even as the state's senators came out against the contracts - Senator Bob Menendez called them blood money - local leaders aren't budging. Democratic Hudson official Caridad Rodriguez points out some of the detainees did commit crimes and it isn't safe to release them.

CARIDAD RODRIGUEZ: Safety for me or my family is priority.

KATZ: In 2018, Hudson Democrats actually voted to stop jailing detainees by 2020. But when Joe Biden won the presidential election, the local Democrats figured ICE would no longer be as controversial. They were wrong.

For NPR News, I'm Matt Katz.

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