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NJ Religious Leaders Sue to Block ICE Prison Contract

A new state lawsuit filed this week claims a local freeholder board violated New Jersey’s Sunshine Law when it suddenly voted to renew a controversial contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which allows them to detain unauthorized immigrants at a nearby jail.

JERSEY CITY, N.J. (CN) - A group of Christian and Muslim leaders from Hudson County, New Jersey, accused their local freeholder board Monday of violating the state's Sunshine Law by  renewing a contract that allows them to detain unauthorized immigrants for U.S Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Represented by the New Jersey chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, the seven religious leaders brought their complaint in Hudson County Superior Court.

The Hudson County Correctional Center, located in Kearny about 14 miles from Manhattan, houses some 800 immigrant detainees on any given day that are taken into ICE custody in New York City. Several high-profile cases, including a man named Pablo Villavicencio, who was taken into custody while delivering pizza to a Brooklyn military base, have been detained at the facility.

The jail had a contract with the federal government to house immigrant detainees dating back to 1996 and signed a deal with ICE in 2003 that expired in January this year. According to the lawsuit, ICE paid Hudson County $77 per detainee per day during the length of the contract but since the deal’s expiration, the bed-day rate increased to $110.

The case says that the nine-member Hudson County Board of Chosen Freeholders initially carried a measure to renew their detainee contract from their July 10 caucus meeting and listed the vote as postponed on a July 12 regular meeting agenda that was publicly posted.

Because of this, “members of the public understood the ICE contract would not be voted upon and therefore chose not to attend or otherwise mobilize their communities to participate in the July 12 meeting,” according to the complaint.

During that same meeting, however, Board Chairman Anthony Vainieri made a motion to suddenly put the ICE contract vote back on the agenda. It passed despite some objections, and the contract renewal later went through by a 5-2 vote.

The contract renewal, according to the complaint, retroactively took effect on Jan. 2, 2018, and is for the “longest period of duration allowed by law.”

The case says that the new bed-day rate as of June 1 is $120 per detainee, meaning that with approximately 800 immigrant detainees each day, “that could amount to some $35 million paid by ICE to Hudson County per year.”

The move was condemned by local leaders, including Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop and Hoboken Mayor Ravinder Bhalla. Councils in both cities unanimously passed resolutions urging the freeholder board to terminate the contract, which, according to county counsel, gives the board a 60-day right to terminate.

The plaintiffs say they and other members of the public were misled and deceived by the board’s representations that the contract renewal would not be decided at the July 12 meeting. A group of 56 local religious leaders alter published a statement critical of the vote.

“Defendant knew that Hudson County’s contract with ICE was a matter of extraordinary public interest and concern,” the complaint says. “With such knowledge, Defendant called for a surprise vote on the matter, thereby acting in secret on a matter affecting the public. Such secrecy in public affairs undermines the faith of the public in government and the public’s effectiveness in fulfilling its role in a democratic society.”

Despite the outcry, the lawsuit said that Vainieri told a local television station the following week that “you don’t have to come to the meeting. Just let us do our work.”

It additionally claims that the public attendance in response to the surprise contract vote was so extensive that there was an oral motion to move the upcoming freeholder meeting to a larger venue at a local school, which Vainieri and five other freeholders voted down.

Vainieri has not responded to requests for comment on the lawsuit, but Freeholder Anthony Romano, who seconded the motion at the July 12 meeting to place the resolution back on the agenda, told The Bergen Record that the freeholders did not violate the law.

“If it was done improperly, our lawyers would have said something. Our lawyer said everything was OK,’’ Romano said. “As long as we were told by our legal counsel and the board counsel that we are not in violation, we are not in violation, to the best of my knowledge."

The case seeks to void the resolution, arguing that “under the terms of the ICE contract, Hudson County may not be able to determine the ultimate result of the immigration cases of its detainees, but it does enable ICE to continue its widespread and indiscriminate detentions.”

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