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Protesters hold vigil ahead of Howard council’s proposed vote on whether to end county’s contract with ICE

A protest outside of the George Howard Building in Ellicott City on Monday night may be the last one about Howard County’s contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement — an issue that has drawn the ire of some in the community and has led to several protests in the past six months.

CASA, an advocacy group for Latino and immigrant people in Maryland, held a candlelight vigil outside the building where County Executive Calvin Ball works and where the County Council holds its meetings. The 50-person demonstration, which included a dozen speakers, started at 6:30 p.m., half an hour before the County Council’s legislative session. During the session, the council is expected to vote on legislation to end the county’s contract with ICE.

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“This contract is an issue of human rights and of safety,” said Jorge Benitez Perez, an organizer from CASA. “It doesn’t just impact the immigrant community, but it also affects communities that have status in this country. Many times, immigrants are afraid to report crime to local authorities, especially if they know the county is working with ICE.”

Introduced last month by County Council Vice Chairperson Liz Walsh, the bill would stop the Howard County Department of Corrections from accepting individuals detained by federal immigration law enforcement agencies. Howard County’s current 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.

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Late last month, Howard County Executive Calvin Ball announced an updated policy for the county’s contract. The change states 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. The change went into effect Sept. 24.

Maria Rivas, 42, spoke during the protest about how two of her brothers have been detained by ICE, including one that spent four months in the Howard County Detention Center.

“We do not represent a danger to our communities,” Rivas said. “It is very sad to see our families torn apart like this.”

Karen Mejia, 35, said she attended the protest because her brother, Hector, was detained in March and deported in July.

“Families are being separated for little things, not criminal things,” Mejia said. “He had a daughter, and this is so hard to explain to kids. I’m here tonight to hopefully make a little change to help a lot of families.”

A vote on the bill is scheduled to take place at the end of the County Council’s legislative session Monday, which began at 7 p.m. The virtual meeting can be livestreamed at cc.howardcountymd.gov/Online-Tools/Watch-Us.

County spokesperson Scott Peterson said Friday that Ball is waiting until after a vote on the bill to decide whether he will sign the legislation or veto it.

“The county talks about standing with the immigrant community,” Perez said. “The council members get to show us tonight whether or not they truly do stand with us.”

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