Howard County Executive Calvin Ball on Friday afternoon announced the Howard County Detention Center in Jessup will only accept immigration detainees from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement who are convicted of a “crime of violence.”
According to a letter Ball sent to the County Council on Thursday evening, obtained by the Howard County Times, the county’s announcement comes after a policy clarification agreed upon with CASA, an advocacy group for Latino and immigrant people in Maryland.
“Under the revised policy, only persons convicted of violent crimes would be housed in the detention center,” Ball wrote in the letter to the County Council.
Howard County’s contract with ICE, which has existed since 1995, allows immigration detainees to be held in the Howard County Detention Center. The center does not hold women or child ICE detainees.
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.
According to Ball, the county will now follow the Maryland Criminal Code section 14-101′s definition of a “crime of violence,” which includes murder, rape, first-degree assault, carjacking and kidnapping, among others.
“This takes a balanced approach to ensure that when there are convicted felons of a violent crime, that we do do our part,” Ball said Friday at the news conference.
Ball said Howard County does not perpetuate the “weaponization” of ICE by the federal government.
“I think what we’ve seen especially during COVID-19 as the policy has naturally evolved with us trying to ensure physical distancing and minimizing having too many people in the detention facility, that formalizing this policy clarification is not only good for health and safety but it’s also good for the values that our community upholds,” he said.
Ball also emphasized that his administration has been having conversations with CASA and immigration advocates about the ICE contract for about a year.
In the past six months, CASA has organized several protests against the county’s contract with ICE. Earlier this week, local residents not affiliated with CASA showed up at Ball’s Hispanic Heritage Month news conference, calling the event “hypocritical” in light of the existing ICE contract.
The policy announcement comes weeks after County Council Vice Chair Liz Walsh introduced a bill to stop the Howard County Department of Corrections from accepting individuals detained by federal immigration law enforcement agencies.
“This revision significantly differs from council bill CB-51, which was introduced on Sept. 8. If enacted, CB-51 would effectively prohibit the county from housing any person who is in federal custody in the detention center under the contract with ICE,” Ball wrote in his letter to the County Council.
"We believe that our policy revision strikes the appropriate balance between ensuring the fair treatment of our immigrant population while protecting our community from those convicted of a ‘crime of violence.’ ”
Gustavo Torres, executive director of CASA, spoke at the news conference and said he was pleased the updated policy would fix some of the problems with the previous one.
Zainab Chaudry, director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations office in Maryland, also voiced support for the decision.
“This policy, we are confident, will establish and preserve trust in policing,” Chaudry said Friday at the event. “It will demonstrate local government’s commitment to public safety to all of its county’s residents, and it will reassure immigrant communities that, yes, you too are welcome here.”
Walsh said Friday she is not planning to withdraw her legislation to end the county’s contract with ICE permanently.
“[The policy clarification] doesn’t change my opinion as to whether or not we should continue the policy with ICE,” County Council Chair Deb Jung said Friday.
Jung said she would continue to support the council bill unless CASA and the local immigrant advocates would prefer Ball’s proposal going forward.
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“While it would be our preference to institute this policy immediately as we discussed with CASA, it was not known or expected that CB-51 would be filed this month, especially given the public nature of our discussions,” Ball wrote in the letter.
“While it was unfortunate that intent was not communicated with either of our offices prior to filing, I respect the council’s legislative process. If the council feels strongly about continuing forward with CB-51, we will step back to allow the public process to unfold over the next couple of months. Then, based upon how that is resolved, revisit this policy and next steps.”
Ball would not say whether he would sign the bill if it passed in the County Council. On Friday, he said he wanted it to go through the legislative process as usual. The legislation introduced by Walsh is scheduled to be discussed at the County Council meeting on Wednesday and could be voted on as early as Oct. 5.
County Council member Opel Jones called the updated policy the safest route for the county moving forward, adding that keeping the facility in Howard allows families of ICE detainees easier access to their family members.
“I’m much more comfortable with [ICE’s role in the county] now,” Jones said Friday, noting that he doesn’t see the purpose of the council’s bill anymore.
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 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.