A controversial contract to house illegal immigrant detainees in a privately run facility was unanimously approved by the Essex County Board of Chosen Freeholders Wednesday night.
The contract, which was put to bid a second time in October, was again awarded to Education and Health Centers of America (EHCA), a private firm with political ties to Essex County Executive Joseph N. DiVincenzo Jr. and Gov. Chris Christie.
"I don't care what issue comes before this board – we never vote on issues before we do our homework," said Board President Blonnie R. Watson.
In August, DiVincenzo signed a five-year, $250 million contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to house 1,250 immigrant detainees in Essex County. Under the contract approved Wednesday, 450 of those detainees will be placed at Delaney Hall, run by for-profit agency Community Education Center (CEC), in Newark adjacent to the Essex County Correctional Facility. The county jail will house the remaining 800.
EHCA is the nonprofit affiliate of CEC.
Immigration right advocates made a last-ditch effort Wednesday to dissuade the board from approving the contract, which they said puts profit before human rights. Protesters claim detainees in both facilities are subject to inhumane treatment.
Many speakers urged the formation of a community oversight committee to monitor the centers.
"It's basically the very minimum thing that a community can do to ensure a modicum of transparency," said Alina Das, supervising attorney at New York University Law who specializes in immigration rights.
Freeholders Rufus I. Johnson, Rolando Bobadilla and Leonard M. Luciano made unannounced visits to Delaney Hall this week and said they found detainees living in proper conditions, complete with working televisions, a workout area and well-balanced meals.
"I can tell you I was (EHCA's) biggest critic," said Bobadilla. "I can tell you that I did not find anything that was unfit or inhumane. And I'm glad I saw that."
The three freeholders vowed to make regular, unannounced visits to Delaney Hall and partake in an oversight committee, if enacted. Officials said the decision to create such committee is in ICE's authority.
Last summer, Essex County canceled a contract with EHCA, which was the lone bidder at the time, when the bidding process came into question. Top CEC officials have made campaign contributions to DiVincenzo or are closely allied with Christie, the New York Times previously reported.
EHCA was the sole bidder when the contract went out for rebid two months ago.
Though Wednesday's decision hardly came as a surprise, advocates still promised to fight for immigrants' rights. Karina Wilkinson, co-founder of the Middlesex County Coalition for Immigrant Rights, said she'll continue to monitor the conditions in both facilities.
Meanwhile, Kathy O'Leary, the coordinator of Pax Christi NJ, a Catholic organization advocating peace and justice, said she'd hold freeholders to their word. O'Leary amassed more than 4,000 signatures on her online petition to revoke the contract.
"What I'm perplexed about is how they keep saying ICE can tell them if they can oversee their own jail and their own facilities. I can't imagine entering into a contract with anybody that says that I can't oversee my own operations I'm responsible for," she said. "We're talking about 460 lives they're responsible for at Delaney Hall."