Howard County is ending its 26-year contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement that allowed immigration detainees to be housed at the detention center in Jessup, according to documents acquired Monday from the Howard County Office of Law.
At the direction of County Executive Calvin Ball, the Howard County Detention Center sent written notice of its intent to terminate the contract on Friday.
Ending the contract requires 60 days’ notice, the documents state, so the eight ICE detainees currently in the detention center must be removed “no later than May 18.”
The contract, active since 1995, allowed immigration detainees to be held in the Howard County Detention Center. The center does not hold women or child ICE detainees.
On Tuesday, Ball held a news conference detailing the history of ICE in Howard and formally announcing the end of the contract.
“We continue to stand with the immigrants in our community,” Ball said. “As always, we will keep working toward the same goal of ensuring the safety of our community, our businesses and our residents.”
He said the timing of the decision had to do with the election of President Joe Biden and his administration coming into office.
“At this moment we feel more confident in the conditions and treatment of detainees and their legal rights in federal custody moving forward as compared to previous years,” Ball said.
Ball also announced the Foreign-Born Information and Referral Network — a Howard-based immigration advocacy nonprofit — will be advising the eight detainees that are currently being housed at the detention center on their legal rights and representation.
The announcement of the contract termination comes less than a week after Del. Vaughn Stewart’s “Dignity Not Detention Act” passed the Maryland House with a veto-proof majority. The bill would require the three counties housing ICE detainees — Howard, Frederick and Worcester — to end their agreements by Oct. 1, 2022. It also bans local governments and the state government from subsidizing the construction of any privately run immigration detention centers. The bill now moves to the state Senate for consideration.
“I am relieved. I am so thankful for the state-level legislators who have kept this at the forefront of our shared consciences, particularly Del. Vaughn Stewart and Sen. Will Smith [who is sponsoring the Senate bill],” Howard County Council Chair Liz Walsh said Monday. “And I am so thankful for the advocates who never gave up on us.”
In September, Ball had announced the center would only accept immigration detainees who are convicted of a “crime of violence,” such as murder, rape, manslaughter and robbery. Before that, the county’s previous policy was to detain undocumented immigrants convicted of crimes, validated gang members, deported felons who have illegally made their way back to the United States and people charged with jailable offenses.
Then in October, the County Council narrowly passed legislation to eliminate the contract completely. The bill passed, 3-2, with council members Walsh, Deb Jung and Christiana Mercer Rigby voting in favor; Opel Jones and David Yungmann voted against.
However, minutes after the bill passed, Ball said he would veto it and two days later he did.
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Liz Alex, chief of organizing for CASA, an advocacy group for Latino and immigrant people in Maryland, called the move “a big step forward.”
“Folks have been fighting for this for years,” Alex said. “[This is] really responding to a sustained public outcry. We don’t want our local budget to be balanced on the back[s] of immigrants.”
Alex said she thinks pressure from multiple protests in Howard over the past year could be why Ball decided to end the contract all together.
“It’s just a testament to sustained, intense grassroots efforts that’s been around for years,” she said. “It feels good that someone was finally listening to the people.”
Besides Howard, Frederick and Worcester are the other two counties in Maryland 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.
Howard was paid about $2.8 million per year under its ICE contract, which makes up about 13% of the jail’s total $21 million budget, according to a nonpartisan legislative analysis.
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.