Episcopal priests join other faith leaders to sue New Jersey county over ICE contract

By Mary Frances Schjonberg
Posted Aug 28, 2018

[Episcopal News Service] Advocacy for immigration detainees can take many forms, and four Episcopal priests in one New Jersey county have joined three other faith leaders to add an open-meetings law challenge to their efforts.

The seven, represented by the ACLU of New Jersey, filed a lawsuit Aug. 27 accusing the Hudson County Board of Chosen Freeholders of violating the state’s Sunshine Law when it voted to renew a 10-year contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to house in its county jail immigrant detainees who are awaiting deportation hearings. The contract earns the county millions of dollars.

The lawsuit says that the freeholders on July 10 unanimously agreed to postpone discussing and voting on whether to reauthorize for 10 more years what has become a controversial contract until the regular August meeting. The freeholders published an agenda of a July 12 meeting with the postponement noted and, the seven say, told people who arrived early to that meeting that the vote was postponed. However, after the meeting began, the board put the ICE contract back on the agenda and rapidly voted to renew it, over the opposition of two individual freeholders and those activists who happened to attend, they say.

The July 12 renewal resolution calls for ICE to pay the county $120 per detainee per day, a $10 increase from the $110 it had paid previously. Radio station WNYC reported that about two-thirds of inmates at the Hudson County Correctional Facility — 800 people — are immigration detainees.

Hudson and two neighboring counties are paid $6 million a month on ICE contracts and have collected more than $150 million since 2015, the station reported. Along with the privately-run Elizabeth Contract Detention Center, the four New Jersey facilities house approximately 2,000 immigrants.

If Hudson County’s current detainee count remains near 800, it will receive approximately $35 million a year, more than half of its total Department of Corrections budget. The freeholders predict massive layoffs at the jail or a big tax hike if the contract is severed, according to published reports.

Anthony Vainieri, a Democrat who chairs the board, has previously said that the contract allows immigrant detainees to stay close to their families and friends. Most of the detainees in the jail located in Kearny, New Jersey, are from across the Hudson River in New York. He has also said that ICE will not stop detaining people if the county stops holding them.

The first named plaintiff in the lawsuit, the Rev. Thomas Murphy, rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church and Church of the Incarnation in Jersey City, told Episcopal News Service via email that “first of all, the freeholders should void their previous vote and start over, allowing for public input about the possibility of renewing the contract with ICE.”

“My hope is that this free and open discussion will allow for reflection on whether Hudson County should be in this business at all and, especially, if the county should be profiting from the misery of the detainees.”

Murphy said that question goes to what Episcopalians mean when they repent, in the words of the confession in Enriching Our Worship 1, (page 19 here) “the evil done on our behalf.”

The Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas, rector of All Saints Episcopal Church in Hoboken and another of the plaintiffs, said in an interview with ENS that the freeholders “deliberately deceived the public about when [the contract] would be discussed and voted on.”

But there is also a larger issue, Thomas said. The advocates don’t believe that the detainees ought to be jailed while they await those deportation hearings or asylum determinations. “Hudson County is balancing their budget on the backs of detainees who are denied due process,” she said. “They’re not being given the same legal rights under ICE as anyone else that might be a prisoner there.”

However, Thomas said, “fighting that battle from a legal perspective is probably too high a bar right now.” Those who have visited with detainees say the argument about detaining them near their families does not carry much weight because families are often denied access to the jail or they live far away to begin with.

And then there are the deaths. Between June 2017 and March 2018, six people died while in the jail, the lawsuit says. The first death was a detained immigrant and, of the five others, four were by suicide. The lawsuit says the freeholders investigated and promised an overhaul of the medical care provided at the jail, arrangements of which are still being finalized.

“The Hudson County jail is just a really bad place to be,” Thomas said.

The other five religious leaders who brought the suit include the Rev. Gary Commins, an associate priest at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church and Church of the Incarnation in Jersey City; the Rev. Laurie Jean Wurm, rector of Grace Church Van Vorst in Jersey City; Ashraf Eisa, board member of the Islamic Center of Jersey City; the Rev. William Henkel, pastor of the First Reformed Church of Secaucus; and the Rev. Frances Teabout, and pastor of the Open Door Worship Center in Jersey City.

They were among 56 signers of a statement condemning the freeholders’ action. Those signers also included Diocese of Newark Bishop Mark Beckwith and Roman Catholic Archbishop of Newark Joseph Tobin. The statement was read at an Aug. 9 meeting of the board.

The signers said that they are grateful to have been given access for pastoral ministry among ICE detainees and are sensitive to the concerns that canceling the ICE contract entirely might put detainees far from lawyers, activists and family. Those concerns “should be part of a public conversation about what the county is pushing for in contract negotiations with the federal government, and how the funds that are generated from housing immigrant detainees are spent,” they wrote. “Diverting at least some of these funds to immigrant services or direct aid would be appropriate.”

The Episcopal Church’s support for immigrants, including those facing deportation, was underscored last month by the 79th General Convention, which passed multiple resolutions on immigration issues. Thomas said that the way Episcopalians have been formed in the church, especially by the baptismal covenant, “have led us to this point and I think it’s really important that people know that this is what the Episcopal Church is about. That’s our Episcopal identity.”

Thomas, who admits to being “the new kid on the block” having come to Hoboken eight months ago from St. Paul’s Memorial Church in Charlottesville, Virginia, said her involvement is “what my faith compels me to do, to stand up to powers and principalities and to advocate for humane, dignified treatment for all human beings.”

“The other component of it is that the narrative of religion, Christianity in particular, is being hijacked by a certain narrative that does not match my own.”

That narrative, she said, is centered on law and order, the attitude that might makes right, protecting borders and the need to insulate and protect. “We want people to know that there are faith leaders, and there are Christians, who believe that we’re not on the side of the rich and the powerful and the privileged but on the side of the poor and the oppressed and those who need advocates who do have the privilege and the power to do that.”

– The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is the Episcopal News Service’s senior editor and reporter.


Comments (18)

  1. Robert Lee says:

    It’s not immigration, it’s illegal immigration that’s the problem. Immigration implies legal immigration. Not the same.

    1. Jordan Sakal says:

      Mr. Lee,

      Not all “illegal immigration” is in fact illegal. There are large swathes of people who seek asylum or are otherwise migrating who attempt to come to this country but they get painted with the same brush by the other side.

    2. Charlene R Cook says:

      Robert Lee says the truth. America is FOR LEGAL immigration NOT ILLEGALS !!! Come to America and do it the right way as millions of legal immigrants have done for generations. Why are these illegals getting more care and attention than America’s poor and needy? They should not have ANY rights as they are not American citizens. They are ILLEGALS !!

      1. Jordan Sakal says:

        Ms. Cook,

        There are tens of thousands of migrants who claimed asylum and who attempted to migrate “properly” into this country under the current administration. “Illegals” are not getting more care or attention or rights than the poor/destitute of the United States of America. Perhaps you should look at the politics of certain parties (namely the Republicans) who choose to destroy the working class, the middle class, and the poor with their policies instead of helping them.

  2. Matt Ouellette says:

    I think we can do a better job treating migrants humanely than blanket detention. There are better and more humane ways to handle asylum cases, such as electronic monitoring of claimants for example:

  3. Frances E. Blair says:

    The vast majority of the people trying to enter the United States are seeking asylum from horrific conditions in their native lands. In an embarrassing number of cases, our own country is the cause of those conditions, thanks to dreadful foreign policies and militarized backing of corrupt governments by leaders of both parties for decades. When asylum seekers get to our borders, ICE agents refuse to let them in at the “legal” ports of entry, so they do what we all would do to save our families: they come in at “illegal” places along the border. No private prison should be allowed to profit from people’s distress! Where is our humanity?

  4. John Hobart says:

    I avoid saying those things in new liturgies such EOW that might be used to argue that I have unwittingly signed up for someone’s partisan political agenda. They have used the new “Baptismal Covenant” from the 1979 BCP in a similar fashion. I think much of the resistance to prayer book revision stems from suspicion that the political crazies in the church are attempting to interject their politics into our faith.

    1. John Hobart says:

      * should read “such as EOW.”

  5. Bill Campbell says:

    It is sad that some Priests do not focus on their own church attendees. They should leave the problem of illegals up to the people that are paid to deal with the situation.

    1. Matt Ouellette says:

      I think clergy can care for their own flock as well as speak out against injustice in society. The Church cannot be content with just preaching to the already converted, or she will never be able to make disciples of Christ.

  6. Hugh Hansen, Ph.D. says:

    Bill Campbell is right. Priests are ill-equipped knowledge, and otherwise to deal with any of these undocumented people. Even lawyers who are well-intentioned don’t always have the skills needed. There are many Americans, especially homeless Americans that these priests could help and do you have the skills to help. This problem requires faith on the part of the church in the systems that have been constructed to deal with the undocumented. Unfortunately, This seems like another attempt by liberal priests to carry out a liberal agenda.

    1. Jordan Sakal says:

      Dr. Hansen,

      I find that priests can be some of the most perfectly well equipped people to deal with crises of faith or understanding or being able to lend a supportive ear and listening to the cries of their flocks. For example, I went in to my priest’s office the other week crying my eyes out due to a personal issue and she sat with me and helped me calm down and provided the emotional support and care I needed. Priests can provide all sorts of people with a caring, gentle attitude and the ability to listen to their problems. Yes, they may not be able to answer legal questions, but they can provide spiritual support and guidance to so many people regardless of migration status. We are all God’s Children after all.

      Speaking as for my priest, I know that she also helps the homeless community in the town I live in in addition to all of the other support services she provides (again regardless of immigration status.) The purpose of a shepherd of God (for that is what a priest is, is to tend to their flock. (again regardless of immigration status or other constructs.) It is not a “liberal” thing, it is a religious thing.

      1. william dailey says:

        The church may be able to provide a solution. It could house all these people in the ever increasing number of empty churches. All the priests who are so well “equipped” to deal with such problems could provide whatever counseling they deem appropriate–all for nothing!!

        1. Matt Ouellette says:

          Well, it just so happens that several Episcopal churches have attempted to house undocumented migrants in the past, but were criticized by anti-immigrant groups as breaking the law. So, which is it then?

  7. mike geibel says:

    ENS recently has published 3 articles on immigration protests in the tiny, liberal states of New Hampshire and New Jersey, but has made only passing reference to the 2017 Parochial Report disclosing another loss of 32,000+ members nationwide. It is big news that a few clergy and parishioners are protesting the detention of illegals, and big news that local clergy have joined with the ACLU in a lawsuit seeking to prevent Hudson County from renewing its contract to house illegals in the county jail facilities. In the last three years, the Episcopal Church as lost over 100,000 members.

    Average Sunday Attendance is down to 55 members per church, and these numbers are inaccurate. Clergy are counted as part of the ASA, and if there are two or more services, they get to be counted twice or 3 times. Average pledge was up 1.7% (about $100 per pledge), but even this was not enough to keep pace with the rate of inflation at 2.1%. 72% of all churches have an ASA of less than 100 members. For a Church that claims to have 1.7 million baptized members, only 556,744 (less than 1/3rd) usually show up on Sunday. The exodus from the pews cannot be explained by age or death or the rise in secularism alone. 2017 showed a church-wide a loss of 33,768 souls—all these people did not die.

    The focus of the Church is no borders, no jails, no guns, no pipelines, no Israel and now “no detention centers for illegal aliens.” Moral elitists claim it is their Christian duty to instruct the faithful in their more enlightened political views, preaching reckless compassion with no semblance of common sense, fiscal accountability, public safety, or the Rule of Law. It is an odd marketing plan to demonize conservative congregants, and then be surprised when they don’t come to Church on the following Sunday.

    1. Matt Ouellette says:

      So then what do you think the church should do about declining membership? I assume your solution isn’t to marginalize progressive members instead. Should the church instead just be completely apolitical (and thus socially irrelevant), like it was when it took no stance on slavery in the Civil War era? I agree that TEC should be taking steps to correct this problem (I think its renewed focus on evangelism is an encouraging first step, but more action is needed), but I do not agree that becoming silent on social justice issues which make either the secular left or right upset is the correct approach.

      1. mike geibel says:

        Dear Mr. Ouellette:
        It is a wonder the right side won the Civil War without the aid and social relevancy of the Episcopal Church.

        I read somewhere that Robert E. Lee was an Episcopalian. Lee’s heritage was so deeply rooted in Southern soil that he sided with Virginia primarily over States’ Rights, not slavery. In a letter he penned to his wife before the war, Lee wrote that he felt that “slavery was a moral and political evil in any country.” After the Civil War, he was the beloved president of Washington College in Lexington, Virginia, and became the senior warden at nearby Grace Church. Both intuitions honored him for who he was as a person and as a Christian, not for what he was as a Civil War general. Pressured by political correctness advocates within the TEC, and since the church name had become a rallying symbol for clergy demanding eradication of all Confederate monuments, R.E. Lee Memorial Church changed its name and removed stained glass windows and statues.

        The Parochial Report findings show Churches in the South as one of the few regions where membership is actually growing or holding steady in 2017. One must wonder whether more recent TEC assault on everything Confederate will affect the results of the 2018 Parochial Report.

  8. mike geibel says:

    There has been growth in many non-political, nondenominational mixed congregations, whose congregants are mostly young, probably more liberal than their parents, and who are searching for guidance on how they should live their lives, and not hearing about calls for sanctuary cities and churches, who or what they should vote for, and what “social justice issue” they should protest. These young believers are often straddled with college loans, the costs of raising a family, the daunting price tag of buying a home, and the relentless demands of more and more of their paycheck led by progressive liberals pushing for higher taxes, social Marxism, open borders, free colleges, free healthcare, and free housing for immigrants and the so-called marginalized masses. Someone will have to pay the costs, and it will not be the super rich or the corporations, which merely pass tax hikes on to the consumer or go out of business.

    Clergy of course have the right to have partisan opinions, and I expect my pastor to be more liberal and compassionate than I am—it helps temper my own conceit. But when the Church pursues political issues using pledge money and claiming to speak for all Episcopalians, congregants who disagree with its politicking have the right to refuse to contribute one minute of their time or one penny of their savings.

    I am no Biblical scholar, but I am not persuaded that Jesus was political. Others more qualified say Jesus was political, but I wonder if they say this merely to justify their political activism. I missed the chapter where Christ denounced the emperor or extorted his followers to mount protest marches or issued Resolutions advocating “resistance” to Roman laws. He never advocated government solutions, yet he was not socially irrelevant because he taught us how we should live our lives, and he profoundly changed history and the world.

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