For years, Worcester County’s jail has depended on a federal contract to detain people accused of violations by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The agency pays the county to hold people awaiting hearings. Other Maryland counties have similar arrangements, but Worcester has been especially reliant on its ICE contract — the funds have totaled more than half the Eastern Shore detention center’s annual budget in some recent years.
Now that revenue is set to dry up after the General Assembly voted to prohibit counties from contracting with ICE for detention services starting in October 2022. The “Dignity not Detention Act,” passed last month, also bars state and local governments from subsidizing a private detention facility.
Officials in Worcester County, which includes Ocean City, say the revenue loss could put 26 jobs at their jail at risk, and they are working on a plan to adjust to the decreased funding. The end to the contract has been expected for some time, said Board of County Commissioners President Joseph Mitrecic.
“We’ve seen the writing on the wall, so to speak,” said Mitrecic, a Republican. “We saw that it was something that was probably going to get some traction.”
Around the state, residents who are outraged over ICE practices such as family separation have pressed officials for years to end partnerships with the agency.
“Through these contracts with ICE, counties are using immigrants as a revenue stream,” said Cathryn Paul, research and policy analyst with CASA of Maryland, an advocacy organization for Latinos and immigrants. “And no one should be profiting off the incarceration of human beings.”
Two other Maryland counties also maintain ICE contracts to jail people detained on immigration matters: Frederick and Howard.
Howard’s agreement is set to end soon. County Executive Calvin Ball, a Democrat, announced in March he would terminate the contract after pressure from residents. He had previously changed the county’s policy to allow the jail to accept only ICE detainees convicted of “crime of violence,” including murder, rape, first-degree assault, carjacking and kidnapping.
Worcester County has housed people detained by ICE since 1999. The county opposed the detention legislation during the General Assembly session.
“Prohibition of these services and the resulting loss of revenue and jobs would be devastating to the operations of the Worcester County Jail,” Mitrecic wrote in a letter to William C. Smith Jr., a Montgomery County Democrat who sponsored the Senate version of the bill. Mitrecic said the county provides “a safe and secure environment” for those being held.
The bill’s supporters said counties should not be making money from jailing immigrants.
Some point to national data compiled by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University, showing that most people held in immigration facilities have no criminal history.
A 2020 report by TRAC’s Immigration Project found that nationally, 61% of immigrants held in ICE detention centers have not been convicted of a crime.
That proportion varies widely by facility, the report found. In July 2019, 71% of immigrants held in Frederick County had no criminal convictions, according to the report. In Worcester, it was 49% and in Howard, it was 20%.
Indivisible Worcester Maryland was among the bill’s supporters. The group is part of a national network formed in response to the election of Donald J. Trump. In a letter to lawmakers, they wrote that the president’s “official violence towards immigrants of color led to denial of rights under U. S. law, indefinite incarceration, unjust deportation, separation of children, the spread of disease, and the deaths of untold thousands of migrants in the Southwestern deserts.”
Toby Perkins, a Berlin resident and co-coordinator of the group, said lawmakers sent a strong message with the bill.
“We should not be making money,” Perkins said, “on the backs of a racist policy.”
The final version of the measure, sponsored in the House of Delegates by Del. Vaughn Stewart of Montgomery County, bars police from asking someone about citizenship, immigration or place of birth during a stop, search, or arrest, and prohibits them from detaining someone based on immigration status or a civil immigration violation.
Republican Gov. Larry Hogan is expected to veto the measure, as he criticized the legislation on social media and urged people to contact lawmakers to vote against it. The bill passed the General Assembly by a wide enough margin that lawmakers could override a veto when they’re next in session.
The legislation does not affect the 287(g) program, in which ICE authorizes county jails to screen inmates for immigration violations. Cecil, Frederick and Harford counties participate in that program.
In Worcester County, spokeswoman Kim Moses said officials are working on a plan to address revenue loss related to the contract. The jail currently has 99 staffers.
“The county is currently developing a plan to address anticipated impacts and [is] working to address some of the anticipated staffing reductions through attrition,” she said in an email to The Baltimore Sun.
Last year, the county received over $3.5 million from the ICE contract, which represented about 36% of the jail’s annual budget.
That was down from the several years prior, when the county received more than $5 million annually from the contract, which was more than half the annual budget for the detention center. In 2017, the ICE revenue was 62% of the jail budget.
The county expanded the jail, located in Snow Hill, in 2011 in part to make more room for immigration-related detainees.
The number of people detained by ICE in local Maryland jails has declined markedly over the past year amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Worcester’s contract let the jail hold up to 200 ICE detainees daily, though the average was about 160, Moses said.
But on a recent day, there were 21 being held at the jail.
Howard County’s jail in Jessup has only two ICE detainees left, county spokesman Mark Miller said. When Ball announced that the county would end its contract, there were eight people, and ICE has since moved six of them.
According to a fiscal note prepared by legislative analysts, Howard County had gotten about $2.8 million per year under its ICE contract, about 13% of its jail’s budget.
And Frederick County received no income from the contract this past year, said Vivian Laxton, a spokeswoman for County Executive Jan Gardner, a Democrat.
Frederick Sheriff Chuck Jenkins said ICE released people on ankle bracelets because of concerns about COVID-19.
Jenkins said the revenue from ICE typically went into the county’s general fund, rather than funding jail operations. Occasionally some of the money funded projects at the jail, such as replacing the kitchen floor. The county had been receiving up to about $1.5 million annually through the contract before the pandemic, he said.
Jenkins, whose department earlier this year reached a $125,000 settlement with a Latina woman who said deputies profiled and illegally detained her during a 2018 traffic stop, called the legislation “idiocy” and an intrusion on local government. “I think the legislature ought to stay the hell out of local decisions,” said Jenkins, a Republican.
He said that when the local contracts end, immigrants could be sent to jails in other states, putting them further away from their families.
Paul, of CASA, said that is a possibility, but affected immigrants still supported the bill.
“The community members who were impacted by this bill understood that and still advocated for this bill because the bottom line is that when there is space to detain people, that space will be filled,” Paul said, adding that transfers to other facilities already happen.
She said the fact many immigrants have been released during the pandemic shows it is not a public safety necessity to keep people in the local jails.
ICE did not answer questions from The Sun, including about where people detained in Maryland could be transferred. The agency said in a statement that it’s “committed to ensuring that all those in our custody reside in safe, secure, and humane environments and under appropriate conditions of confinement.”
ICE is currently ”reviewing its detention policies and space requirements and exploring options that will afford the agency the operational flexibility needed,” officials said in the statement.
Paul pointed to cases like that of Nora Argueta, who a few years ago was detained by police after her car caught fire while she was driving to work. She spent about 10 months at the Worcester detention center and was eventually deported to El Salvador.
Argueta, who used to live in Baltimore, testified remotely before lawmakers this year in support of the Dignity Not Detention legislation. She said she had lived in the United States for 18 years and has two children who are U.S. citizens.
“My time in detention was very traumatic,” she told them.
She said her cellmate accused of her stealing. None of the guards spoke Spanish, so Argueta could not defend herself, she said. They believed her cellmate, who spoke English, and said they would take her to a “punishment cell.”
Argueta described the toll her situation has taken on her family.
″I ask the legislators to please support this proposal because it is the children who are most affected,” she said.
Paul said counties may feel a financial pinch by losing contracts, but that immigrants have been deeply harmed by ICE practices.
“These counties will be hit with the change at first, but the continued operation of these facilities hurts everyone in all counties of the state,” she said.