Essex County leader gives top aide $45K salary increase to handle illegal immigration program

Updated Mar 11, 2019

The political appointee who oversees the Essex County’s troubled detention program for unauthorized immigrants has been getting a significant boost in pay each year, atop his six-figure salary, for managing the county’s lucrative contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Records show Philip Alagia, the top aide to Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo, is currently being paid an additional $45,900 a year to keep tabs on the troubled detention program, which has come under scathing criticism by federal inspectors. And those bonus payments have increased substantially over the past five years.

DiVincenzo announced the creation of the additional position of County Director of ICE Programs in 2011, naming Alagia to the job and adding $30,000 to his then-$108,645 salary. Last year, Alagia’s total annual salary including the nearly $46,000 adjustment in connection with the ICE detention contract came to $163,599, according to documents released by the county under a public records request.

A spokesman for DiVincenzo said that before he was assigned to oversee the ICE program, Alagia was spending much of his time working on issues related to the Essex County Correctional Facility and Essex County Juvenile Detention Facility.

“The contract with ICE was a new experience for Essex County and additional oversight by the chief of staff was deemed necessary to get the program started. In addition, it was important to have a member of the county executive’s staff to cultivate a good working relationship with the federal government and interact with ICE on an executive level,” said spokesman Anthony Puglisi.

In an interview, Alagia, 51, said he is at the jail often, describing his role as a liaison between county government and the correctional facility, and with ICE. The public records released by the county said he spends more than a quarter of his time each day supervising the ICE program for Essex, which has a long-term contract to house up to 800 detainees a day at the county jail in Newark.

“If there is something that needs to happen, they reach out to me,” he said. “I supervise the program.”

That program, meanwhile, has been blasted by the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general. In a report last month, the department — which has oversight over ICE — called for an immediate and full review of the Essex County Correctional Facility and the Essex County Department of Corrections’ management of the facility. The findings came after a surprise inspection last year that discovered substandard conditions representing “significant health and safety risks” for the hundreds of detainees being held there.

Most of those being held for ICE by the jail are awaiting deportation hearings, or applying for asylum.

The inspector general’s report revealed serious security incidents that were never reported by the county, including a detainee’s discovery and reporting of a guard’s loaded handgun left in a facility staff bathroom that the detainee was cleaning.

The county was also cited for dozens of food safety violations which led to potentially contaminated food being served to detainees, including mishandling of raw, spoiled, or expired meats and storage of moldy bread, open packages of raw chicken leaking blood all over refrigeration units, and “slimy, foul-smelling lunch meat.” According to the report, the county’s food handling was so substandard that ICE and the detention facility had the kitchen manager replaced during the federal inspection.

Faced with violations of federal detention standards that inspectors said to represent “significant threats to detainee health and safety,” the county now faces financial penalties that could result in fines of up to 5 percent of what Essex bills ICE to detain thousands of immigrants at the jail each year.

“The Essex County Correctional Facility is held accountable, through various contract oversight measures, for full compliance with the terms of their Intergovernmental Service Agreement,” said ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations in a statement.

A penalty of 5 percent of the county’s monthly bills to ICE would be no insignificant sum of money.

According to invoice records released by the county, Essex County charged ICE more than $30 million to house immigrant detainees last year through November — the latest figures that were available. An additional $642,471 was billed in 2018 to transport detainees within the facility, to medical facilities outside the jail, and to immigration court in Newark.

All that money goes into the county’s general fund, according to Alagia.

The county official added that the issues raised by the Department of Homeland Security were fixed immediately. At the same time, he defended the county’s agreement with ICE, which has been under increasing attack by a number of immigrant advocacy groups.

“I think we provide a service for ICE and those detainees. If they weren’t detained here, they would be detained far away from their families and lawyers,” Alagia said.

Essex is one of three counties In New Jersey that hold immigration detainees under contract with ICE. The others are Bergen and Hudson counties. A private detention facility in Elizabeth also holds immigration detainees.

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