A group of Hudson County religious leaders, represented by the ACLU-NJ, filed suit (PDF) against the Hudson County Board of Chosen Freeholders, calling on the court to void a non-transparent and deceptive vote on a contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to house immigrant detainees.
The Hudson County Board of Chosen Freeholders violated the state’s Sunshine Law when it conducted a vote on a controversial immigration contract after having misled the public to believe the issue would not be decided until a later meeting.
“When public bodies make decisions affecting our lives and our communities, the Sunshine Law safeguards the public’s right to witness that process. The Board of Chosen Freeholders violated that law – and just as importantly, the public trust – by making a decision of enormous public importance in the darkness,” said ACLU-NJ Staff Attorney Tess Borden, who filed the lawsuit in Hudson County Superior Court. “A process that intentionally misleads the public and shields government from public scrutiny is unlawful and undemocratic.”
The seven religious leaders include Rev. Thomas Murphy, Rev. Gary Commins, Ashraf Eisa, Rev. William Henkel, Rev. Frances Teabout, Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas, and Rev. Laurie Jean Wurm, all of whom fill leadership roles at places of worship in Hudson County. They were part of a group of fifty-six signatories that published a statement condemning the Board’s July 12 action to renew the ICE contract.
The Hudson County freeholders on July 10 agreed unanimously to postpone discussion and voting on a resolution to reauthorize the county jail’s contract to house immigrant detainees, the subject of intense public opposition and advocacy, until the next month’s meeting. The Board publicly announced the vote was postponed by publishing an advance agenda of the July 12 meeting with the postponement noted and informing people who arrived early to the meeting that the vote was postponed. However, after the meeting began, the Board added the ICE contract back onto the agenda and rapidly voted to renew the contract, over the vocal opposition of two individual freeholders and those activists who happened to attend.
Anna Brown, a Hudson County activist and university professor with a long history of advocating for immigrants’ rights, came to the meeting early. Notation of the postponement was listed on the agenda she received and, when she asked a county employee to clarify, she was told the vote was postponed to a future meeting. Ms. Brown emailed a 224-member listserv of anti-detention activists with this information and initially left the meeting before it even began.
“I’ve participated in a hunger strike at Guantanamo Bay, and I’ve taken my students to Capitol Hill to meet with their legislators, but when my county government made a decision about whether to keep imprisoning immigrants, I felt powerless to mobilize my community,” said Anna Brown, Ph.D., chair of the political science department and director of the social justice program at St. Peter’s University in Jersey City. “The freeholders undermined the people and the democratic institutions they were put in office to serve, and they broke our state’s transparency laws.”
Even before the election of Donald Trump, advocates have petitioned the freeholders with concerns about its relationship with ICE and have taken action against the inhumane conditions at Hudson County jail. Since the election of Donald Trump, movements to protect immigrants’ rights and end immigration detention have grown exponentially.
“The people of Hudson County – which sits beneath the Statue of Liberty, the embodiment of freedom throughout the world – deserve to have a say in one of the most important decisions the county government has the power to make,” said Rev. Thomas Murphy, rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Jersey City. “It’s unthinkable to deliberately exclude the public on an issue that affects people’s lives here so directly.”
Jersey City, the largest city in Hudson County as well as its seat, is considered one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the world, and 43 percent of Hudson County residents are foreign-born. Both Jersey City and Hoboken unanimously passed resolutions condemning the process by which the July 12 vote occurred and urging the Board to invoke a 60-day opt-out clause to terminate the ICE contract
“In a democracy, elected officials have a choice over how to cast their votes, but they do not have a choice about hearing the voice of the people,” said ACLU-NJ Executive Director Amol Sinha. “Right now, with a federal government that continually places our rights and dignity under assault, local government has a duty to demonstrate what accountable, responsive government looks like. The Hudson County freeholders abdicated that responsibility to the people when they held this deceptive vote.”
PRESS CONFERENCE CALL noon at today: The ACLU-NJ will hold a call for members of the press on Monday, Aug. 27, at 12 noon, featuring remarks from the ACLU-NJ’s Amol Sinha and Tess Borden, participants in the lawsuit, Hoboken Mayor Ravinder Bhalla, Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop, and fellow immigrants’ rights advocates. Call 1-888-632-5004 and enter 891216 to participate.
The complaint in the case and exhibits (PDF), including a transcript of the meeting and the contract renewal, can be read online.