PIX11 goes inside ICE facility in NJ for rare tour

ELIZABETH, N.J. — Our first steps inside the secured area of the ICE Immigration Detention facility in Elizabeth, New Jersey, immediately cleared up any confusion we may have had about what this place is -- and what it is not.

"The facility detains immigration violators," ICE assistant field office director Joe Simao said.

ICE has previously allowed human rights advocates to tour this facility.

But until now, a television news crew has never before been allowed to tour and record video inside this holding center for detained undocumented immigrants.

In our previous immigration reporting, we’ve heard stories like the one Anner Velasquez told us.

"Going to work, when the ICE police stopped the taxi and they get out me, from the taxi," Velasquez said.

"Well, they were looking for me because I couldn't get them," Velasquez said.

Our goal with this report was to shine a light on the ICE detention and deportation process after the arrest.

We found Velasquez in the crowded law library.

Simao showed us around the converted industrial warehouse.

We visited an outdoor rec area, which was really just a concrete court, fitted with a handful of large, open-air ceiling grates and several men passing the time.

Jamaican immigrant and detainee Densley Lawrence has been here for 11 months.

When asked what is a typical day here, Lawrence said: "Volleyball, gym, go to the library and then back, eat, sleep and do the same thing tomorrow."

Simao also showed us the medical facility for 275 men and some 30 women, in addition to both short- and longer-term dorms, all furnished with simple cots, open bathroom areas, metal tables, televisions and not much else.

Throw in the fact this place is run by CoreCivic, the largest for-profit prison corporation in the United States, and you could be forgiven for confusing this detention facility with a prison.

But Simao insists that is not the case.

"This is not a hotel. This is a detention facility. It's important to say we are not a prison," Simao said.

Simao referred to ICE’s published detention standards and a convenient detainee locator tool, both found on the agency’s website.

We asked Simao to respond to allegations that detainees were essentially being warehoused at the ICE facility.

He cited a myriad of inspection protocols and national detention standards.

"My response is: the transparency here is evident," Simao said.

John Tsoukaris runs all of ICE’s Newark enforcement and removal operations.

"In terms of our facility, it looks like a jail. It's a detention center but it has a lot higher detention standards. There's a lot of recreation, visitation and they're not being held for punitive reasons," Tsoukaris said.

PIX11's tour comes months after Human Rights First issued a scathing report citing “harsh and inhumane” conditions at ICE’s three New Jersey detention centers, including substandard medical care, worms and maggots in the shower area, and unsafe food and water.

We did not witness any of those conditions during our tour.

However, we asked ICE officials in Washington to respond to human rights advocates call for ICE to implement a more “normalized,” less jail-like environment.

An agency spokesperson sent PIX11 a lengthy statement which read, in part, "Based on multi-layered, rigorous inspections and oversight programs, ICE is confident in conditions and high standards of care at its detention facilities.”

There is life after ICE detention, and PIX11 was once again given exclusive access for this stage of the process.

A bus ride to Newark Liberty International Airport is followed by a handcuffed walk on the tarmac, up to a waiting charter jet on ICE AIR, the agency's own airline just for deportations.

Here is the full ICE Statement:

"ICE detainees are housed in a variety of facilities across the United States, including but not limited to ICE-owned-and-operated facilities; local, county or state facilities contracted through Intergovernmental Service Agreements; and contractor-owned-and-operated facilities. ICE uses three sets of detention standards for adult detainees, the National Detention Standards (NDS), Performance Based National Detention Standards (PBNDS) 2008, and PBNDS 2011 to ensure the agency provides a certain threshold of care.

"The agency’s aggressive inspections program ensures its facilities comply with applicable detention standards, and detainees in ICE custody reside in safe and secure environments and under appropriate conditions of confinement. Based on multi-layered, rigorous inspections and oversight programs, ICE is confident in conditions and high standards of care at its detention facilities.

"Senior ICE officials also chair an intra-agency council that jointly examines serious issues, incidents, findings and allegations related to detention conditions at ICE facilities. The Detention Monitoring Council (DMC) convenes at least once per quarter, with the DMC subcommittee meeting at least once per month to ensure an effective, timely and comprehensive agency-wide review and response to critical detention-related incidents. As a final layer of oversight within ICE, the Detention Reporting and Information Line (DRIL) is a toll-free service that provides a direct channel for detainees and agency stakeholders to communicate directly with ICE’s Enforcement and Removal Operations about detainee concerns or conditions of confinement.

"The agency’s aggressive inspections program ensures its facilities comply with applicable detention standards, and detainees in ICE custody reside in safe and secure environments and under appropriate conditions of confinement. Based on multi-layered, rigorous inspections and oversight programs, ICE is confident in conditions and high standards of care at its detention facilities.

"Senior ICE officials also chair an intra-agency council that jointly examines serious issues, incidents, findings and allegations related to detention conditions at ICE facilities. The Detention Monitoring Council (DMC) convenes at least once per quarter, with the DMC subcommittee meeting at least once per month to ensure an effective, timely and comprehensive agency-wide review and response to critical detention-related incidents. As a final layer of oversight within ICE, the Detention Reporting and Information Line (DRIL) is a toll-free service that provides a direct channel for detainees and agency stakeholders to communicate directly with ICE’s Enforcement and Removal Operations about detainee concerns or conditions of confinement."

To read ICE’s detention standards, click here.

For ICE's online detainee locator tool, click here.