Statement to Hudson County Freeholders

The following statement was delivered at the Hudson County Freeholders Meeting July 12:

To the Board of Chosen Freeholders of Hudson County:

My name is Steve Ramshur, and I live in Weehawken. I stand before you as a proud 20 year resident of Hudson County, as a person of Faith, and as the Director of Hudson Civic Action. I am also a member of Faith in New Jersey, an interfaith network seeking to advance justice at the local, state and federal level; as well as a coordinating member of the Unitarian Universalist Ministry of New Jersey’s Immigration Task Force.

As a person of faith, I take oaths and covenants very seriously. In all aspects of my life, whether personal, professional, or in the public square, I measure myself against my varying ability to meet these commitments. When I fall short, I pledge to do better. Today, this body has the opportunity to do better than the past, and to Do Justice.

Just a few minutes ago, every person in this room took a solemn oath to uphold “Liberty and Justice FOR ALL”.  I know that act has become ritual, with perhaps little thought given to its implications, but I still get emotional every single time I say those words.

It is not Justice only for the documented, or people of Anglo-European descent, or even for citizens. We pledged to uphold Liberty and Justice FOR ALL, including inmates, detainees, non-citizens, and the undocumented. Lady Liberty and Blind Justice do not care a whit about the status of an individual’s documentation, country of origin, the color of someone skin, or the language they speak.

As a Unitarian, I believe passionately in the inherent worth and dignity of every human being. Forgive me, but I cannot help but wonder if we would be having this conversation were the late detainee an English-speaking Caucasian woman from the United Kingdom, with an Anglo-European name, rather than a humble Honduran day laborer.

The deplorable conditions at Hudson County Correctional Facility have been well documented for years; most recently, by the New York Lawyers for the Public Interest in their February 2017 report, “Detained and Denied: Healthcare Access in Immigration Detention”[1] (please note that this report was published AFTER the report issued October 24, 2016 by the four member panel created by the Freeholders).

It is too late to uphold Liberty for Rolando Meza Espinoza. However, today, we have the opportunity to live out our professed values and principles by working towards Justice for Mr. Espinoza by holding a fully empowered, transparent, and public investigative hearing.

The Resolution this Board is voting on today, however well-intentioned, is nevertheless deeply flawed.

First, there will be four Freeholders, rather than a higher number, on the ad hoc committee. At five, the requirements of the Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA) kick in. In other words, the deliberations of the ad hoc committee will not be open and transparent.

Secondly, and more to the point, the committee is to be comprised of “administration medical and professional staff designated by County Executive DeGise”[2]. However,  the County Executive is directly accountable for conditions at the Hudson County Corrections facility.  To have the County Executive to have control over an investigation’s proceedings, given the long history of complaints of conditions at the jail (to say nothing of ongoing litigation proceedings) is a blatant conflict of interest, and smacks  of Trumpian tactics of avoidance and redirection.

Instead of the pending resolution, we want you to do what is right and just, not what is easy or politically expedient. Transactional Politics have no place here, now. Do what is right and Just. The only proper response to this egregious loss of life is an independent and fully empowered investigatory body, provided for by N.J.S.A. 40:41A-86::

The board may, by majority vote of the whole number of its members, require the head of the executive branch to appear before the board sitting as a committee of the whole, and to bring before the board such records and reports, and such officials and employees of the county as the board shall deem necessary to insure clarification of the matter under study.

Just when should this statute be used to establish an independent investigative hearing? In case of fiduciary malfeasance or embezzlement? Perhaps. I contend that an avoidable death is the most compelling use of the statute, and the necessary response of this Board.

This Board is comprised of individuals who have dedicated their lives to public service, and have our community’s best interests at heart, and, at their best, make deliberative decisions informed by deeply held values and Democratic principles.

But, as I said, I have lived here 20 years, and it is an election year. However, this tragedy is bigger than machine politics, and should transcend party loyalties.

Hudson Civic Action conducted an analysis of all 45 governmental entities that currently have 287(g) agreements with ICE[3]. Of those 45 entities, in last November’s Presidential election, 29 voted for Trump, and 16 for Clinton. Of those bodies that voted for Clinton, one stands out as the bluest County by more than 10 basis points – Hudson County. Right here in Hudson County, where the Statue of Liberty is a beacon to the world, we have a voluntary 287(g) agreement in place that permits Hudson County Corrections officers to collaborate with ICE and uphold the Trumpian immigration agenda, while working on local payroll supported by Hudson County tax dollars.

Be assured – as more and more local residents are educated on the 287(g) agreement, so uncharacteristic of our community with its long history of support for the immigrant community, this Board is going to hear more resistance in these meetings, in the press, and, in November, at the polls.

I encourage you all to do Justice. Do the right thing, the only just thing, and conduct a fully empowered and transparent investigative hearing. Furthermore, to limit the chances that something like this will happen again, I call upon you to end the 287(g) agreement and the County’s relationship with ICE.  The Board’s actions today will be remembered in November by all those present in this room, as well as by our substantial extended networks.

With thanks for your time and appreciation for your Service,

Steve Ramshur
Weehawken resident
Director, HudsonCivicAction.org

[1] New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, “Detained and Denied: Healthcare Access in Immigration Detention,” (Feb. 2017), available at http://www.nylpi.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/HJ-Health-in-Immigration-Detention-Report_2017.pdf

[2] “County Committee Will Independently Review Detainee Death”, July 11, 2017, http://www.hudsoncountynj.org/county-committee-will-independently-review-detainee-death/

[3] “287g agreements, nationally, sorted by 2016 Election Results”, Hudson Civic Action, July 12, 2017, http://hudsoncivicaction.org/2017/07/12/287g-agreements-nationally/

 

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