Protesters block an ICE black site. (Tamar Sarai Davis)

At sunrise Tuesday morning, a broad coalition of immigrant justice organizers from groups across the New York metropolitan area halted operations at a remote ICE field office in Newark, New Jersey. The site of the protest is largely shaped by its industrial landscape and proximity to Newark International Airport. What’s less well known is that it’s also home to a Department of Homeland Security investigations office located at 620 Frelinghuysen Avenue, what organizers refer to as an “ICE black site”—the final stop for ICE detainees before they are forcibly transferred to facilities in other states or deported from the U.S. For roughly five hours, organizers from groups including Movimiento Cosecha, Abolish ICE NY-NJ, NYC ICE Watch, Never Again Action, Close the Camps, and Jews for Racial and Economic Justice held a human chain that blocked two gates outside of the facility and prevented a small fleet of DHS vans from entering the site, stopping an international flight that was slated to transport detainees for the day.

Organizers have been calling for the immediate release of those held there in ICE custody, arguing that use of the site both separates families and disrupts communication between detained people and their legal counsel. 

The majority of ICE detainees held in facilities such as Essex County Jail are from New York, but many are transferred to other states as far away as Georgia, Louisiana, and Alabama. These transfers occur after detainees are first sent to the Newark “black site” and often happen quietly, at night, and without their loved ones or lawyers even knowing. 

“ICE literally steals our neighbors and then acts like it’s not happening,” said Kelly, an organizer with Movimento Cosecha, an immigrant-led network of organizers working toward the permanent protection of the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States. “I work in schools where kids have lost family members to deportation.”

Many assume that ICE detention of undocumented people is no longer a pressing issue because of the new presidential administration and political climate, Kelly said, “but nothing went away. There were concentration camps then and there are still concentration camps now.”

Currently, there are more than 27,000 immigrants currently in detention in the United States—an 82% increase from the start of the Biden administration. To highlight Democrats’ often underreported culpability for fueling the harms of the immigration system, organizers laid out a sign at Tuesday’s action, reading in bold block letters “DEMS DEPORT, TOO.” 

Throughout the morning, passersby cheered and cars honked their horns in solidarity. A local business owner who drove by the demonstration even stopped to learn more and ask questions. He was so moved by the message of the protest that he circled back later in the day to deliver free donuts and coffee to organizers. The ongoing support illustrated what Kelly and others described as a real desire among most Newark residents to push ICE out of their community.

“Newark is not in support of this, and if people knew [about the black site] there would be resistance,” Kelly said.

As in other states across the country, immigrant justice advocates in New Jersey have been increasing pressure against ICE in recent years, securing some substantial victories in the process. In April, Essex County announced that they would terminate their 13-year relationship with ICE and no longer detain immigrants on the agency’s behalf after August 23. In June, S3361, a bill that would ban future ICE contracts throughout the state, passed in both houses of New Jersey’s legislature. Now advocates from across the immigration justice rights community including the state’s ACLU chapter have been organizing petitions and campaigns to get Governor Phil Murphy to immediately sign the bill into law. 

But for people outside the world of immigrant justice, it can be difficult to resist what you can’t see, and ICE’s obscurity lends itself to evading pushback and critique. Tuesday’s protest was aimed not just at halting operations for the day, but also raising awareness of the site’s existence and alerting those who work in the area of ICE’s ongoing presence and impact. Some employees in the private complex of buildings where the black site is located were unaware of what actually goes on inside the facility. The building itself is unmarked, as are the DHS vans that transport detainees in and out of the facility. 

Within Newark’s Airport Business Park, 620 Frelinghuysen is left unmarked, leaving many residents unaware of ICE’s presence. (Tamar Sarai Davis)

In a brief conversation with Prism, Haydi Torres, an organizer with Movimiento Cosecha, explained that in order to find and publicly call out these targets, immigration justice organizers must understand how ICE operates in their own community, how people are funneled into the immigration system, and where they physically find themselves once within it.

Throughout the day, Torres was among those who led chants, shared statistics about ICE, and encouraged passersby to get involved. Torres is undocumented herself and has worked to educate the public about the ties between the immigration system and mass incarceration, and how police violence often creates a pipeline that puts undocumented folks into contact with ICE. After learning about that connection, the inevitable question emerged for Torres and other organizers: “Once people are transferred, where do they go?” 

They found the answer through deep relationship-building with people intimately impacted by the system, including both those who are currently detained and the loved ones who are supporting them. Stories from people inside helped organizers identify 620 Frelinghuysen Avenue for the day’s action. The location—where all deportations, transfers, and ICE raids in New Jersey are processed and carried out—is among 30 other similar black sites located across the country, locations ICE refers to as “field offices.” 

A statement released by the coalition on Tuesday included the story of Alex Kamara, a Sierra Leonean immigrant who was detained at Bergen County Jail until he was transferred to a facility in Arizona on July 13. 

“From Frelinghuysen Avenue, they forced us to sign papers,” Kamara said. “About six guys jumped us, slammed us to the road. And after that we got chained hands and feet and they drove us over to Newark airport.” 

Stories like Kamara’s also illustrate the necessity of understanding immigration justice as a Black issue. Torres was adamant about uplifting that fact because the media, the general public, and even some advocacy groups often fail to recognize their stories.There are however, 4 million Black immigrants in the U.S. and at least half a million are undocumented. Because of the disproportionate policing of Black people, and local law enforcement’s ability to transfer immigrants to ICE custody, Black immigrants are at an increased risk of being detained and deported than other immigrant communities. In fact, while Black immigrants make up less than 9% of the undocumented population in the U.S., they comprise over 30% of all immigrants facing deportation for alleged criminal offenses.  

The coalition of advocates from Tuesday’s action have been working to raise those stories to the public’s attention in large part through building connections with Black immigrants like Kamara and others such as Patrick Julney, a Haitian immigrant who has been detained in Bergen County Jail since 2019. During the action, organizers read aloud excerpts from an essay Julney wrote about his experience inside and the strain it has placed on his family. 

“I live in daily fear that ICE will transfer me to another detention center,” Julney wrote. “Apart from being deported, that is my greatest fear because I would lose those visits with [my wife] Laura. I would lose the one thing that makes this hellhole bearable for me.” 

Torres reiterated these stories as well, routinely reminding the crowd about what people held there have experienced.

“After they come here, they take their fingerprints and all the information that they need to put them on a deportation plane,” Torres said. “And from all the stories that I’ve heard from immigrants who have been detained here at this facility, it’s cruel. It’s trauma that they are inflicting on our people. How many children have been left without their parents? Their family members? Shame on them and shame on all of these businesses that know what’s going on because they hide, they have been hiding for too long and they’re not going to hide anymore!”

“Shame!” the organizers echoed back.

As noon approached, Tuesday’s action began to wind to a close. Vans meant to transfer detainees out of the state were successfully halted, an international flight slated to deport a still yet to be disclosed number of detainees was stopped and the presence of the state’s black site was brought to public attention. As gates began to open, allowing private trucks and cars from employees at other businesses to exit, organizers continued to lead chants and turn outwards, highlighting the fact that the work is far from over and that the urgent need to secure freedom will require both more action and more voices. For the remainder of this week, the coalition will hosting #ReleasesNotTransfers, a series of digital actions for supporters to get involved in both throughout New Jersey and abroad. 

Tamar Sarai is a features staff reporter at Prism. Follow her on Twitter @bytamarsarai.