Judge overturns NJ ban on housing detainees, claiming it violates immigration law

NEW JERSEY - A federal judge this week ruled the State of New Jersey violated the Supremacy Clause of the United States Constitution by banning the detainment of individuals who violated US immigration laws.

AB207 was passed in 2021 and prohibited state and local governments and their subsidiaries from agreeing to detain noncitizens. The bill passed both houses of the New Jersey state assembly along partisan lines and was signed into law by Gov. Phil Murphy (D).

U.S. District Judge Robert Kirsch, a Biden appointee, struck down the measure, which targeted private prison operators and violated the United States Constitution.

The measure targeted a private company, CoreCivic, which operates private prisons in New Jersey.

The prisons partner with the state and federal government and primarily house US asylum seekers and undocumented aliens.

Kirsch ruled the New Jersey law attempts to give New Jersey law governing authority over federal laws dealing with immigration. Kirsch said the measure was designed to circumvent a law that falls under federal jurisdiction.

Judge Kirsch noted the United States Supreme Court has “consistently relied on the Supremacy Clause to strike down state laws that dictate how the federal government carries out its federal functions.” He ruled that AB 5207, “a state law that wholesale deprives the federal government of its chosen method of detaining individuals for violating federal law{…] cannot survive Supremacy Clause scrutiny.”

The law, in effect, prohibited entities such as CoreCivic from contracting to own or operate Garden State facilities that detain those violating civil immigration law.

CoreCivic filed suit against New Jersey because its contract with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) was set to expire on August 31. Under the measure, it would have been illegal for CoreCivic and ICE to renew their partnership. Under those circumstances, CoreCivic asked the new law be stricken.

U.S. Code 8 U.S.C. § 1231 authorizes ICE to determine “the appropriate places of detention” for illegals or asylum seekers detained for civil immigration violations. The law also requires ICE to “consider the availability for purchase or lease” of detention facilities before building a new facility.

Kirsch found the New Jersey law was in direct conflict with that section of the U.S. Code, therefore declaring it unconstitutional where it concerns CoreCivic’s operations. The court also permanently banned the state’s ability to enforce the measure against CoreCivic concerning its relationship with ICE.

New Jersey Attorney General Matt Platkin announced the state will appeal the decision.

According to Fox News, CoreCivic currently operates only one facility in the state—the Elizabeth Detention Center.

The Biden administration argued against the bill, claiming if states bordering New Jersey passed similar measures, “ICE will be unable to detain some (or perhaps many) noncitizens who are public safety or national security risks.”

The government also claimed, “a drastic decrease in ICE’s ability to contract for detention facilities would also result in massively increased costs in terms of both transportation needs and the hiring of more officers to ensure that noncitizens are safely transported to distant facilities.”

Fox reports that the Elizabeth center housed 285 detainees as of mid-June 2023.

In his ruling, Kirsch wrote, “While ICE has discretion to release certain noncitizens pending their removal proceedings if they are not flight risks and do not pose a public security threat, ICE is required to detain categories of noncitizens who are subject to mandatory detention under the immigration laws or those who pose a risk to public safety. Congress has likewise granted DHS discretion over the manner in which it detains individuals for civil immigration violations.”

The New Jersey ruling is the second hit taken by states pushing for more freedom for immigrants violating laws in the past year. Last September, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals shot down a similar California law.

Earlier in August, the entire New Jersey Democrat congressional delegation save one sent a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland in which they demanded the DOJ retract its statement of interest in CoreCivic’s lawsuit.

They claimed that detainees and legal advocates have complained of “inhuman conditions” at the Elizabeth facility, alleging lack of proper air quality, sanitation violations, overcrowding, inadequate media, and mental health care. They alleged “incidents of retaliation and abusive treatment by guards and staff.” They also complained of “extensive complaints, lawsuits, protests, and calls for action” against the facility.

Aside from members of Congress, some local civil rights advocates in New Jersey were upset by the ruling, according to the Newark Patch.  

In a statement, the “multi-faith, multi-racial” coalition wrote, “In this recent ruling, Judge Kirsch called the ban a ‘dagger aimed at the heart’ of federal immigration enforcement. It is ironic that Judge Kirsch describes the ban against federal immigration enforcement in humanistic terms while ignoring the actual humanity of the families being destroyed by these detention centers.”

The coalition then took aim at Joe Biden, saying, “Additionally, it is morally reprehensible that President Joe Biden has chosen to stand in support of CoreCivic despite his campaign promise to close private prisons."
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