UNION, NJ — On Tuesday, March 2, “No Business With ICE” activists gathered at the corner of Green Lane and Morris Avenue, in front of Kean University, to rally and to deliver a petition to Kean University President Lamont Repollet, signed by more than 1,400 students, alumni and members of the community. The petition called for the abolishment of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and demanded the removal of Anne Evans Estabrook and Dave Gibbons from the university’s board of trustees.
“We’re pushing to get ICE out of Kean and get Anne Evans Estabrook and Dave Gibbons off the board of Kean University,” said organizer Emma Yorra on Tuesday, March 2. “Estabrook and Gibbons are on the board of the university with the second highest level of undocumented students of a public university in New Jersey but are also the owners of an ICE detention facility, where immigrants are suffering and dying before, during and after the pandemic and will continue to, unless we put pressure on them to cut the contract. The only way to do that is to say, ‘It is totally hypocritical for them to be on the board of this university, and they need to go.’”
Last summer, after months of protest, the Elberon Development Group, of which Estabrook is chairperson and Gibbons, her son, is president and chief executive officer, decided to cut all ties with its tenant, CoreCivic, and its property, the Elizabeth Immigration Detention Facility. After almost eight months, however, despite this promise to stop leasing to the detention center, nothing has changed.
“Stacey Callahan and I organized the protest,” said Yorra. “We had Kason Little come in. He’s also an organizer and speaker. We had Madelyn Hoffman from the Green Party, and, together, we came here to deliver this message to the administration.”
Yorra said she felt good about this demonstration, adding that Repollet had come out and received the petition, then had spoken to them, saying he was interested in meeting with them. She said they had been calling him every week and he had been ignoring them, so they knew they had to put more pressure, and it was successful.
“I started the petition once I heard of Kean’s affiliation and the connections to ICE and the Elizabeth Detention Center,” said Callahan, a Kean University alumnus, on Tuesday, March 2. “We have a petition with more than 1,500 signatures, and we wanted to bring it to President Repollet’s attention. … The overall mission is to get Kean University to sever all ties with Anne Estabrook and Dave Gibbons and, ultimately, free all the people who are detained in the Elizabeth Detention Center.
“I think this was successful in the way that we got to see him for a little while,” she continued. “He spoke about the university as a public institution, which may not be responsible for a private company like Elberon, and that we should take it up with Elberon. … Hopefully, more community members know about this and students as well. We’re going to share this all over social media and, hopefully, get the word out.”
According to Callahan in a press release, the names of Estabrook and Gibbons are “smeared across” Kean’s campus on fountains, halls, conference rooms and a human rights fellowship, which stands in stark contrast to the fact that Kean University enrolls the second-most undocumented students of all New Jersey public colleges.
“It is important to listen with respect to all voices on important issues facing our university community, our state and our country,” Repollet said on Tuesday, March 9. “From my first day as president at Kean University, my focus has always been on equity, safety and academic excellence for our students, especially during this unprecedented pandemic. It remains my focus and that of the board of trustees.”
Community organizer Micah Jay, whose @ThoughtStream account on Instagram is a community-sharing account of current events in New Jersey focused on human rights, said she is passionate about justice for immigrants and believes all humans should be free.
“I’m all about humans having freedom and it being their birthright to live anywhere they’d like on the planet without suffering for it,” Jay said on Tuesday, March 2. “Especially here. … There are countries where people are coming here, and they don’t have access to those things at all, and we’re putting them in cages and making them suffer. This is worse than they might have been, even in their home countries. So, I agree with taking people in and taking care of them, and we have the resources to take care of people, instead of harming them.
“The protest was a great success, because we got the president to come out and give a comment. I think that was the beginning of really making him prioritize this issue and put it to the forefront of his mind, that we’re out in person and we’re showing that this is a problem. When you get into their faces like that in person, it forces them to care,” she added.
But CoreCivic said it treats detainees humanely and that much of the allegations and criticisms lobbied against them are politically motivated and misleading.
“CoreCivic plays a valued but limited role in America’s immigration system, which we have done for every administration — Democrat and Republican — for nearly 40 years, including more than 20 years at the Elizabeth Detention Center,” CoreCivic said in a statement. “While we know this is a highly charged, emotional issue for many people, much of the information about our company being shared by special interest groups is wrong and politically motivated, resulting in some people reaching misguided conclusions about what we do. The fact is our sole job is 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 other critical needs efficiently and innovatively.
“We are proud of our 125 employees who are a part of the Elizabeth, N.J., community and the important service they provide while caring for those in our care,” the statement continued. “CoreCivic does not advocate for or against legislation or policies that determine the basis for or duration of an individual’s detention. We also do not enforce immigration laws or policies or have any say whatsoever in an individual’s deportation or release. CoreCivic does not know the circumstances of individuals when they are placed in a facility, and our responsibility is to care for each person respectfully and humanely while they receive the legal due process that they are entitled to.
“Lastly, the false narrative out there is being spread by special interests with a political, not problem-solving agenda,” CoreCivic added. “We’ve stepped up our leadership to solve problems — to align with and respond to the needs of our government partners and to find ways to get better at our profession and offer even more innovative solutions. We’re serious about our purpose to better the public good, and we don’t believe there’s any organization that’s undertaken a more comprehensive effort to tackle America’s recidivism crisis than we have.”
According to CoreCivic, in its continued work to combat recidivism and treat detainees humanely, in 2013 the company adopted a Human Rights Policy Statement, which continues to be refined and assessed against the UN Guiding Principles. More recently, the company completed an industry-first human rights risk assessment and incorporated human rights–related goals in its executive compensation plan. Also in 2013, the company made its first investment in community corrections with the purchase of Correctional Alternatives Inc.; today, CoreCivic Community continues to be a growing part of our business, and it includes both residential and non-residential services that help reduce recidivism. Most recently, the company announced the creation of a new reentry-focused leadership role. Daren Swenson will serve as the company’s first vice president of reentry partnerships and innovation. He’ll build on the company’s ongoing efforts to cultivate meaningful partnerships with academics, issue experts, policymakers and other organizations dedicated to effective reentry solutions and recidivism-reducing outcomes. He’ll also work to operationalize innovative programs and best practices learned from these partnerships, as well as share the lessons learned through CoreCivic’s extensive efforts to promote successful reentry programs and policies.
Political movement organizer and substitute teacher Karlos Edmonds said he was at the protest to support the students and alumni at Kean University and ask for there to be no ties with ICE or any private or public prisons.
“The protest was successful. I feel good that it happened,” said Edmonds on Tuesday, March 2. “We made them feel uncomfortable, so that means that we’re doing a good job. As far as the issue, I think it’s a horrible crime to be caging people, no matter the time, but especially during a pandemic. The best and safest thing is not to be ripping people away from their families, as ICE does, but to let people self-organize, be free and not be taken against their will. To me, this is wrong and it only exists because people make a profit from it.”
“Our human rights and constitutional rights are violated by the private company CoreCivic and the medical staff on a daily basis,” said Sabastian, an immigrant currently being held in the Elizabeth Detention Center, in a press release. “In this pandemic, COVID-19, we can’t protect ourselves in this center. We didn’t receive any proper clean and new PPE. We don’t have any social distancing of 6 feet, because the rooms are small and the rooms are crowded. Medical staff don’t care about us, and we are just a number. Where is ‘united we stand?’ We immigrants are asking for your help. Give us a chance for life, for protection. Show us your power, your humanity, and that you care! The United States was built on immigrants, and now we are held like animals in cages.”
CoreCivic countered that the company works closely with ICE to ensure the health and safety of everyone in their facilities, including the Elizabeth Detention Center. To learn more about CoreCivic’s response to COVID-19, visit https://www.corecivic.com/covid-19-response.
“Since even before any confirmed cases of COVID-19 in our facilities, including the Elizabeth Detention Center, we have rigorously followed the guidance of local, state and federal health authorities, as well as our government partners,” CoreCivic stated. “Elizabeth Detention Center has followed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, which have evolved over time, since the onset of the pandemic, and we’re continuing to work closely with our government partners to enhance procedures as needed. The health and safety of the individuals entrusted to our care and our staff is the top priority for CoreCivic. This commitment is shared by our government partners and we have worked closely together with them to respond to this unprecedented situation appropriately, thoroughly and with care for the well-being of those entrusted to us and our communities.”
Editor’s note: This story was updated to include statements from CoreCivic.