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Federal judge strikes down New Jersey ban on detention centers

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(The Center Square) — A federal judge has struck down a 2021 New Jersey law banning contracts between private prison operators and the federal government to operate immigration detention centers.

The ruling, issued Tuesday by U.S. District Court Judge Robert Kirsch, said the state’s law prohibiting detention centers illegally interferes with the ability of the federal government to enforce immigration laws. He called the law “a dagger aimed at the heart of the federal government’s immigration enforcement mission and operations.”

The legal challenge was filed by Tennessee-based CoreCivic, whose contract to operate the only remaining immigrant detention center in the state expires on Thursday. Kirsch’s ruling will allow the facility to remain open past that deadline.

In legal filings, the company’s attorneys argued that the state’s law violated the U.S. Constitution by interfering with the federal government’s ability to enter into contracts with private entities to operate the facilities.

The group issued a statement saying it appreciates “the opportunity to present our positions to the court” and is “grateful that we have the privilege of continuing to support the vital mission.”

“Our sole job has been and continues to be to help the government solve problems in ways it could not do alone – to help manage unprecedented humanitarian crises, dramatically improve the standard of care for vulnerable people, and meet critical public safety needs efficiently and innovatively,” CoreCivic spokesperson Ryan Gustin said in a statement.

New Jersey Attorney General Matthew Platkin said he was “disappointed” with the ruling, which he said interferes with the state’s “right to protect its residents.” He vowed to appeal.

“Private detention facilities threaten the public health and safety of New Jerseyans, including when used for immigration purposes,” Platkin said in a statement.

Members of the state’s congressional delegation recently sent a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland urging him to drop the Justice Department’s support for the lawsuit by CoreCivic to block the law.

The federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees include those who have recently crossed the southern U.S. border and those living in the country illegally, including asylum seekers. New Jersey’s Elizabeth Detention Center has about 220 detainees, according to the most recent ICE figures.

While the number of detainees dipped during the pandemic, they have been rising amid a surge of immigration over the past year.

President Joe Biden, a Democrat, pledged during his 2020 campaign to do away with privately run detention centers for immigrants in response to public outcry over the deaths of several detainees and allegations of sexual abuse by staff members.

But federal data shows that the percentage of immigrants being held in private facilities has risen under his tenure amid a surge of immigration along the US-Mexico border that put pressure on the Biden administration to keep them open.

More than 90% of the roughly 31,000 people being held by ICE on average in July were in private facilities, up from 80% at the end of the Trump administration, according to an analysis by the American Civil Liberties Union.

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