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Howard County Council passes bill to end ICE contract, but County Executive Calvin Ball says he will veto it

The Howard County Council narrowly passed legislation Monday night to eliminate its controversial contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

However, minutes after the bill passed, Howard County Executive Calvin Ball said in a statement that he will be vetoing it.

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The bill, which County Council Vice Chairperson Liz Walsh proposed last month, would stop the Howard County Department of Corrections from accepting individuals detained by federal immigration law enforcement agencies. Howard County’s contract with ICE, which has existed since 1995, allows immigration detainees, excluding women and children, to be held in the Howard County Detention Center in Jessup.

The bill passed, 3-2, with council Chairperson Deb Jung, Christiana Mercer Rigby and Walsh voting in favor; Opel Jones and David Yungmann voted against.

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“I am happy to be the third vote in favor of this bill to end the contract with ICE,” Walsh said during the meeting. “It is not my work, though, that led this bill before us. It is the steadfastness, the relentlessness and the compassion of the advocates and the people who live this life, are discriminated against and fear ICE in every daily aspect of their lives.”

Ball said he believes the updated policy he announced in mid-September is a “practical long-term solution” that is better than ending the contract completely.

The update, which was announced two weeks after Walsh introduced her bill, was a clarification to the county’s contract with ICE. The change, which went into effect Sept. 24, stated the Howard County Detention Center would only accept immigration detainees from ICE who were convicted of a “crime of violence,” such as murder, rape, manslaughter, robbery, and serious assaults and sexual offenses.

“I remain confident that our updated detention center policy strikes the right balance of ensuring safety for county residents and businesses while allowing for fair treatment for those who have been convicted by the criminal justice system and therefore will be vetoing CB-51,” Ball said Monday evening in his statement.

During a Howard County Coalition for Immigrant Justice press conference Friday, Walsh said Ball’s policy change last month wasn’t good enough.

“Although the announced policy says the county will only accept for detention those people who have been convicted of violent crime, it won’t stop who ICE is targeting or ICE’s aims in terms of the harm it will cause to the person it’s detaining and their family,” Walsh said Friday.

Gustavo Torres, executive director of CASA, an advocacy group for Latino and immigrant people in Maryland, said Ball’s policy change is “a step in the right direction.” He said Friday that CASA’s support of the council’s bill does not mean the organization was unhappy with Ball’s decision to clarify the county’s contract with ICE last month.

“We absolutely support [the council’s bill] ... but we are also very proud of the county executive’s policy [change],” Torres said Friday.

When he vetoes the bill, it will be the second of Ball’s tenure. The first was in April 2019 when he halted a bill that would have expanded the buffer zone for new developments built along scenic roads.

After Ball vetoes the bill, it will go back to the County Council for a possible override. Four votes are needed in the council to override Ball’s veto.

Walsh, Jung and Rigby could not be reached for comment Monday night after Ball’s announcement to veto the bill.

Yungmann, the lone Republican on the council, said prior to voting against the bill that the council would regret the loss of revenue the ICE contract brings the county.

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As of July 2019, Howard County charges ICE $110 per day to hold each detainee. Between mid-2013 and mid-2019, the contract generated more than $14 million in revenue — an average of $2 million per year, according to figures provided by Howard County Department of Corrections Director Jack Kavanagh.

“The misinformation being fed to people and their willingness to believe it on this issue has been sad and frustrating. Any moderate thinker who reads the recitals in this bill or tuned into our work session recognized that this is nothing more than a knee-jerk response to national politics [and] national immigration policies at a tremendous cost to Howard County taxpayers,” Yungmann said.

“Come budget season in the spring when the five of us are wrangling over that last $2 million over whatever need we have in the county ... [we] need not look much further than the $2 million we just voted to give up.”

Jones spoke for seven minutes in dissent during the meeting.

He said passing the bill “raised more questions and does not solve the issue at hand.” He also referenced a quote from the Foreign-Born Information and Referral Network, which opposed the bill for not having a plan for detainees who would be transferred if the contract was canceled. The same quote from FIRN was also referenced by Ball in his statement to veto the bill.

“I understand the frustration and concern surrounding the topic of immigration, especially as it has been heightened here in America in the recent years,” Jones said. “... At this time, [the bill] will not solve the bigger concern of keeping families together.”

Besides Howard, Frederick and Worcester are the other two counties in Maryland that receive money from ICE to house immigration detainees at their jails. Anne Arundel County ended its ICE contract in January 2019.

Howard County does not participate in the 287(g) program — a training ICE gives to local police in federal immigration law so county jails can screen inmates for immigration violations. Cecil, Frederick and Harford counties do participate in the program.

Ten percent of ICE detainees in the detention center are from Howard County, according to Kavanagh. The majority of the detainees are from Prince George’s, Baltimore and Montgomery counties, with another 10% coming from out of state, he said.

Prior to the County Council’s legislative session Monday night, CASA held a protest against the county’s contract with ICE. About 50 people gathered for the candlelight vigil outside the George Howard Building — where Ball and the County Council work — in support of the bill.

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“Thank you everyone who testified in support of this bill and sent in your emails, both to the council and to the county executive, [as well as] to those who showed up at protests,” Walsh said Monday before Ball’s announcement to veto the bill. “This was a grassroots organization. This came from you, and the passage of this bill is also a result of your hard work.”

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CASA has organized several protests this year against the county’s contract with ICE. The first came in March with more than two dozen vehicles circling the parking lot and honking their horns outside the detention center. Then, in June, CASA and the Howard County Coalition for Immigrant Justice held a protest outside the George Howard Building. A month later, hundreds marched through Old Ellicott City to protest the contract.

Also, in mid-September, 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 county talks about standing with the immigrant community,” Jorge Benitez Perez, an organizer from CASA, said during the protest Monday night. “The council members get to show us tonight whether or not they truly do stand with us.”

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