Written by John Chadwick | SAS Senior Writer
Scholars, activists came together for Oct. 27 event
Over the course of three decades, the Elizabeth Detention Center has become, for many, a symbol of immigrant injustice in New Jersey. Rutgers University recently held a symposium, Elizabeth Detention Center: Past, Present, and Future, that examined the ways in which the center reflects the larger story of immigration enforcement in the United States.
“We can get a view of 30 years of immigration policy by looking at what has happened at Elizabeth in those 30 years,” said Ulla Berg, a professor of Latino and Caribbean studies and anthropology School of Arts and Sciences, and a principal organizer of the symposium.
The event, which was held amid a legal battle between New Jersey and the private corporation that runs the center, featured scholars from across the three Rutgers campuses and beyond, as well as community organizations, journalists, activist groups, and people formerly detained in Elizabeth. In the interview below, Berg, an anthropologist and scholar of migration, expounds on the key issues.
Q: The title of the symposium promises a deep dive into the Elizabeth Detention Center. What prompted you to organize the event and what do you hope to accomplish?
A: The Elizabeth Detention Center, which is currently the only operating immigration detention center in New Jersey, opened 30 years ago this year. For three decades, the federal government has been detaining immigrants in this facility. We’re highlighting this date to call attention to the cruel and oppressive systems and methods that go into immigration enforcement. And, during the symposium, we’ll use the Elizabeth Detention Center as a vantage point from where to explore the broader issues of immigration and enforcement policies in the United States, and in New Jersey in particular.
Q: Though it has been operating for 30 years, many people may not know that the center is a very different type of facility than county jails in New Jersey. Who runs the center, and who are the people that are detained there?
A: The Elizabeth Detention Center is run by a private prison corporation, CoreCivic that has a contract with the federal government to keep in detention up to 300 immigration detainees at any given time. Federal authorities know that these beds are available and can send immigrant detainees from anywhere in the United States to Elizabeth. Those who are detained come from many regions of the world, including Africa, Latin America, Asia, and the Caribbean.
Q: How does the center reflect the practices of federal immigration enforcement over the last several decades?
A: Beginning in the late 1980s, the U.S. enacted mandatory detention laws that resulted in a dramatic escalation of the number of people in detention, and created a network of immigration prisons, including the Elizabeth Detention Center. These laws meant that many people who are often simply waiting for their asylum cases to be adjudicated must remain in detention instead of being released into the community. And because immigration courts are overburdened, people wait many months and up to years in detention until their cases are resolved.
In addition, under the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigration Responsibility Act of 1996, the definition of what counts as a criminal activity under the law has greatly shifted so that people who are accused of relatively minor offenses are automatically detained often without the right to bond. These policies often fall on the backs of racialized communities and communities of color and reproduce the same racial inequalities we see in the criminal justice system.
The system is unjust, and it also makes no economic sense. The federal government is spending hundreds of dollars per person, per bed, per night. This simply serves the profit motive of the private prison industry. Instead, ICE could just release detainees into their families and communities. Research has shown most people who are released will come back for their court date.
Q: A bill signed by Gov. Murphy prohibited detention facilities from entering into new agreements to operate in New Jersey. But CoreCivic sued, claiming the law is unconstitutional. How do you see the current situation and what do you think comes next?
A: I can tell you that summary judgment was granted, and for the time being, CoreCivic is able to continue its operations in Elizabeth until February 2024. That is why it’s key to have this symposium now. We want to shed light on what is happening in the court case and what we anticipate for the future.
Q: The symposium has been organized through collaboration between academia, community organizations, and activist groups. How did these parties come together and what are the commonalities?
A: The commonality is that all of us have worked on issues around detention and deportation of migrants but from different perspectives. In 2014, I took Rutgers students to visit migrants in detention for an Aresty program. The organization First Friends was there as a point of contact for detainees to address their needs and issues. We also have the American Friends Service Committee in Newark, who have worked for policies that respect the rights and dignity of all immigrants. Detention Watch Network is a national organization that seeks to monitor and secure accountability from a highly unaccountable system.
These collaborations are also beneficial for Rutgers students. One of my former students, Jenny Garcia, came to this work as the result of the classes she took in Latino and Caribbean studies. She is now a communications associate at Detention Watch Network.
Q: As an anthropologist, how did you get interested in this issue?
A: I was working on migration within Latin America, particularly in Peru and Ecuador, and on migration from the Andean region to the United States and I saw how the number of deportations by the U.S. was escalating. In 2013 alone, United States deported over 400,000 people, mostly to Latin America and the Caribbean. I started meeting people that I had worked with in Paterson and New York who were now suddenly back in Peru because of U.S. policies. In addition, when I began going into detention centers here in New Jersey, I met many South Americans. It became clear to me that I needed to focus on these institutional spaces in my work because of the very serious consequences they impose on people’s lives.