Howard County Executive Calvin Ball’s Tuesday morning news conference, livestreamed on the county’s Facebook page, looked a bit different than usual. A dozen protesters stood behind the podium with signs and occasionally shouting, advocating for an end to the county’s contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
On Tuesday, Ball marked the start of Hispanic Heritage Month by announcing a new Latina workgroup, La Alianza, and the recognition of Indigenous Peoples’ Day in Howard in place of Columbus Day. That’s when protesters showed up to demonstrate against what organizers called the “hypocrisy” of Ball’s remarks.
The demonstration came nearly two 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.
Howard County’s contract with ICE, which has existed since 1995, allows immigration detainees to be held in the Howard County Detention Center in Jessup. The center does not hold women or child ICE detainees.
The outdoor news conferences have been a fairly regular occurrence for the county executive as coronavirus safety guidelines limit the number of people that can gather, but this is the first time since March that protesters have used one of Ball’s events to demonstrate.
About 3 minutes into the nearly 40-minute remarks, once Ball had taken his place behind the podium to speak, protesters walked into the backdrop. On the Facebook livestream of the event, six protesters can be seen, but organizers said there were a dozen sprinkled outside the camera’s lens.
Rick Kohn, a Columbia resident, was among those protesting Tuesday morning. He held a sign that read “ICE out of Howard County, support CB-51,” referencing Walsh’s bill.
Kohn, a University of Maryland professor, saw an announcement of the county executive’s news conference to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month the night before on Facebook. That’s when Kohn and others started brainstorming how they could effectively demonstrate.
“Our thought was that he might be announcing that he wanted to [put an end to the county’s contract with ICE], which is an issue that is very front and center in the county,” Kohn said. “We were hoping the announcement had something to do with that.”
Kohn, who has protested the county’s relationship with ICE multiple times before, said the system that is currently in place is one that favors putting more people in jail and disenfranchising people of color.
As of June 23, the Howard County Detention Center had 27 ICE detainees.
Kohn said he found the presentation to be hypocritical — advocating for representation for the Latino community in Howard County, while putting many individuals who are Latino behind bars.
After each of the speakers at the news conference finished their remarks and as attendees clapped, the protesters in the background shouted, “End the ICE contract.”
This is the fifth anti-ICE protest in the county since March.
CASA, an advocacy group for Latino and immigrant people in Maryland, led a car caravan in March outside the detention center with more than two dozen vehicles circling the parking lot and honking their horns. Then, in June, CASA and the Howard County Coalition for Immigrant Justice held a protest outside the George Howard Building where Ball and the County Council work. A month later, hundreds marched through Old Ellicott City to protest the contract. Though CASA organized some of the previous protests, they were not involved in Tuesday’s at the news conference.
Carla Tevelow, a Columbia resident, was also among the protesters Tuesday. Tevelow described ICE as immoral and racist.
“Anything we have to do with them is something I don’t want to be part of and I don’t want my community to be part,” Tevelow said. “Why do we need it in our county? Why do we need to be complicit with an agency that is racist?”
Tevelow worries that not all Howard County residents are aware of the county’s contract with ICE.
“I wanted to show people that we want to end this contract and it needs to be something that’s focused on,” Tevelow said.
Both Kohn and Tevelow said no one from the event asked them to leave and no one from the Ball administration interacted with them.
“I think Dr. Ball has to understand that we’re not going to go away, so I think we made that point,” Kohn said. “The bottom line is that here we have someone who supported immigrant rights before, and now he changed his position and is trying to throw symbolic gestures out there and not change any substantial policy.”
Much of protesters’ frustration with Ball originates from his time on the County Council, when he and then-Council member Jen Terrasa introduced a bill that stated county employees, including police, would not voluntarily participate in the enforcement of federal immigration law. Though originally introduced using the term “sanctuary,” the legislation passed in early 2017 did not include the term.
Then-County Executive Allan Kittleman vetoed the legislation in February 2017, and an override attempt by the council in March of that year failed as well. Ball never re-filed the legislation.
“There has been an ongoing conversation for several months about the long-standing contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the detention center in Howard County, and a top priority of my administration continues to be ensuring that Howard County is a safe and inclusive community where all residents are given the opportunity to thrive,” Ball said in a statement through a spokesperson.
“We respect the right to peacefully protest, and we will continue to collectively work toward the same goal of ensuring our community is safe, resilient and empowered.”
The current legislation introduced by Walsh will be discussed at the County Council meeting on Sept. 23 and voted on as early as Oct. 5.