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Protest at Howard County Detention Center calls for release of immigrants amid coronavirus outbreak

Immigration advocates protest the jailing of undocumented immigrants in close quarters at Howard County Detention Center during the COVID-19 pandemic

A group of organizers came together Sunday afternoon at the Howard County Detention Center to protest the detention of immigrants charged with civil infractions, along with all nonviolent offenders, who they say are at greater risk of contracting the coronavirus inside the facility.

Organizers from CASA, Doctors for Camp Closure, Takoma Park Mobilization Equal Justice Committee, Immigrant Justice & COVID-19, and other individuals gathered in Jessup to demonstrate and urge Howard County Executive Calvin Ball to release the detainees.

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In what organizers called a “Car-Only Action," over two dozen vehicles circled the parking lot of the detention center and its premises, honking their horns. Following the teal Nissan Vera of Trent Leon-Lierman, an organizer with CASA, protesters waved signs out of their cars, shouted chants, and raised their fists in solidarity with the detainees.

Organizers said the plan for the protest came together late Friday night with multiple groups around the state. They claimed detainees cannot properly practice social distancing in the detention center and that the center does not take proper precautions to protect against the coronavirus.

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Eileen Hollander, an organizer with Doctors for Camp Closure, said their intentions weren’t solely for the benefit of detainees, but also for the safety of the center’s staff and “the sake of this wider community.”

“We wanted to make some noise and create some sense of urgency,” said Laura Atwood, a volunteer with Maryland Against Ice Detention. “We also want the people inside to know that there are people outside who are paying attention and who care and are working for them.”

Atwood called the protest a “COVID-safe car rally,” as the group wanted to be mindful of social distancing guidelines during the coronavirus pandemic.

More than 200 Johns Hopkins staff members wrote a letter Wednesday to Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, asking him to take measures to protect state inmates they believe are at great risk for the coronavirus. Earlier in the month, Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby asked Hogan to release older prisoners who have compromised immune systems and are eligible for parole.

A lawsuit filed Tuesday against U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, among others, aims to get immigrant detainees released swiftly from detention centers in Howard and Worcester counties. Sirine Shebaya, one of the lead counsels for the plaintiffs, said she is “hopeful that we can get some type of resolution next week.”

“Due to pending litigation, we have no comment,” Scott Peterson, a spokesperson for Ball, said in a statement.

Three Howard County police officers arrived at the detention center about 30 minutes into the protest. After speaking with Leon-Lierman for about 10 minutes, he led the protesters out of the detention center and the group congregated in a nearby parking lot.

After the demonstration, the organizers discussed future plans, including an online, virtual rally. Leon-Lierman said organizers have sent a letter to Ball, along with a petition, and are “anxiously awaiting his response.”

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