N.J. car caravan raises demand #FreeThemAll, exposes detention center conditions

Elizabeth, N.J. 

Resistance continues, even in the lockdown conditions of the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite essential social distancing guidelines, social justice organizations have stepped forward to actively defend the most vulnerable.

Car caravans across the country have surrounded jails, detention centers and city halls with the resounding demand: Free them all! Mass petitions, intense phone banking and online forums have focused on breaking the deadly lockups.

Since social distancing orders were implemented in New Jersey on March 16, seven driving protests have been organized, calling for the immediate release of people held in Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention centers. Family members of immigrants held in detention are especially active in the #FreeThemAll NJ campaign.

A car caravan drove to the notorious Elizabeth Detention Center on April 17. The action called once again on Gov. Phil Murphy and ICE Field Office Director John Tsoukaris to act immediately and release all people held in immigration detention. While the car caravan circled the center, other activists with ICE Free NJ who could not participate were busy making hundreds of calls to county officials and the Elizabeth Detention Center.

The cars met at a restaurant parking lot close by and drove with flashing lights and blaring horns three laps through the EDC parking lots and then back past the prison for another round. 

This detention center has been a focus of protests, suits, reports and exposes for more than 20 years. The systematic abuse of migrants is well documented in reports by NJ Advocates for Immigrant Detainees, the NYU Law Immigrant Rights Clinic and the National Immigrant Justice Center. Previous reports documented lack of access to clean drinking water, spoiled food, denial of medical care and torturous solitary confinement.

Past civil disobedience actions, human chains and blocked roads have challenged these abuses. In the face of a highly contagious, rapidly spreading coronavirus, such unsanitary conditions can be a death sentence for prisoners whose sole crime is the lack of a piece of paper.

‘If this were a kennel for dogs, it would have been shut down’

Alejandro Jaramillo, an organizer with Cosecha New Jersey, described the situation: “Today, people who have tested positive for COVID-19 are living in a small cramped room where they are placed for quarantine, with little medical care and a lack of soap. The rest of the people who are detained there live in open dorms. They sleep in beds 5 feet apart as they watch the people around them get sick and they are served spoiled food. If this were a kennel for dogs, it would have been shut down.” Amanda Rapace documented the history of this systematic abuse in NJ Today. (tinyurl.com/y96hcsto)

Over 3,000 medical professionals have signed petitions calling on ICE to release detainees to stop the spread of COVID-19 in crowded, unsanitary prison conditions.

Based on campaigns and political pressure, several jails have reduced their crowded conditions. But the Elizabeth Detention Center has maintained its overcrowded, pre-pandemic number.

The broad-based effort for migrant justice in New Jersey includes Kathy O’Leary, coordinator for the New Jersey Region of Pax Christi, a consistent organizer of past solidarity actions that now have a new sense of urgency. Others involved include Action 21, Cosecha New Jersey, Central Jersey Coalition Against Endless War, Workers World Party, Green Party New Jersey, Jobs & Equal Rights for All Campaign, Never Again Action, Lazos America Unida and NJ5 Indivisible.

These new forms of struggle, which arise to confront rapidly deteriorating conditions, will be further developed in the immediate future for May Day actions all across the country.

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