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Howard County Council to introduce bills to end ICE contract, create racial task force following summer protests

After a month-long summer recess, Howard County Council members have pre-filed legislation for the month of September, a long list that includes many recent legislative demands by protesters and rally organizers.

County Council Vice Chair Liz Walsh has introduced a bill to stop the Howard County Department of Corrections from accepting individuals detained by federal immigration law enforcement agencies. And council members Christiana Mercer Rigby and Opel Jones have pre-filed legislation that would create a Racial Equity Task Force to study racial inequities and disparities within the county.

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“I do think this is the product of people coming out to protest this summer,” Walsh said.

Walsh’s legislation requests the Howard County Detention Center, located in Jessup, not house individuals as they await disposition in exclusively immigration-related proceedings.

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Twice over the summer community members and local organizations gathered to protest the county’s contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Walsh was among the participants at the first protest in June, along with council Chair Deb Jung; at the time they both said they would support ending the contract.

“We’ve had draft legislation and it couldn’t stand to wait any longer,” Walsh said.

Besides Howard, Frederick and Worcester are the other two counties in the state that receive money from ICE to house people detained by the ICE at their jails. In January 2019, Anne Arundel County ended its ICE contract. The Howard County Detention Center does not hold women or children as ICE detainees.

Howard County does not participate in the 287(g) program, in which county jails screen inmates for immigration violations after ICE trains local police in federal immigration law. However, Cecil, Frederick and Harford counties do participate in the program.

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Rigby said Monday she would vote to end the contract: “I fundamentally believe that changes need to be made to how our county interacts with ICE. We know that ICE, under the direction of the president, has denied transparency, committed human rights violations and operated in bad faith throughout the United States.”

“It’s been months that we the people urged our elected officials to stand with immigrants, reject the county’s longstanding collaboration with ICE and eliminate the use of the Howard County Detention Center to house people held for civil immigration proceedings,” said Jossie Flor Sapunar, CASA communications director. “We are hopeful that county leaders will hear the cry of the community and do the right thing.”

The creation of a Racial Equity Task Force, legislation introduced by Rigby and Jones, aims to give the county a blueprint, by August 2021, of tangible next steps to making Howard County more equitable.

Thousands marched in early June from The Mall in Columbia to the Columbia Lakefront in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, specifically in response to the death of George Floyd, a Black man killed at the hands of the Minneapolis police in late May. There were several other protests and rallies throughout the summer in the county, including one in rural Western Howard, to support Black Lives Matter.

The legislation suggests creating six subcommittees: education, legislative process, public health and environmental policy, economic and workforce development, land-use and housing policy, and personal and public safety.

“As leaders in Howard County, we must remain steadfast and progressive in removing obstacles that currently exist for our communities,” Jones said. “This task force will elevate the voices of our community and establish actionable recommendations for the council to implement.”

The subcommittee groups would meet once a month to discuss what changes they want to see in their respective areas. They would be comprised of nine to 12 members recommended to Rigby and Jones from local advocacy groups and from County Council members.

“This structure provides a way to start analyzing our work with racial equity in mind,” Rigby said. “Subgroups will look at our local data, look at creating new policies or changes to existing policies reducing racial gaps in our community.”

Council member David Yungmann, the sole Republican on the council, did not reply to a request for comment about either bill as of Tuesday evening.

In March, the subcommittees would present an update to the County Council on the progress of their dialogue. By Aug. 2, a final report from the task force would be presented to the council.

“We’re not going to solve racial equity in a year or nine months, our expectation is that we’re laying a foundation for the work to continue on,” Rigby said.

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