Howard County Council member Opel Jones introduced legislation earlier this month to prohibit county agencies from cooperating with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
During a public hearing Monday evening, the County Council caught its first glimpse of the community response to the legislation as 46 individuals testified in support of or against the bill.
Jones’ legislation, titled the Liberty Act, would prevent county employees from questioning or reporting immigration status to ICE.
Liz Alex, chief of organizing and leadership at CASA, an advocacy group for Latino and immigrant people in Maryland, said Jones reached out to the organization shortly after legislation to end the county’s contract with ICE was vetoed by County Executive Calvin Ball to begin writing legislation that would mirror a trust act. Neighboring Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, as well as Baltimore City, already have trust acts in place.
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.
“A trust act very clearly explains the rules for when and how local agencies can communicate with ICE and when we can respond when they try to communicate with us,” Alex said. “So that I know as a county employee what I’m allowed and not allowed, so that we as people understand what the government is and is not allowed to do.”
Alex said right now those lines are blurry and county employees should have clarification on how to respond if ICE asks a question about a specific employee or group of employees.
Alex said CASA sent Jones suggested language for the legislation and has continued a conversation with Jones up until Monday’s legislative hearing.
“At this point, it’s mostly about ensuring that the language is going to do what we all want it to do, which is to reduce collaboration and communication between Howard County agencies and ICE," Alex said Tuesday. “[We want to allow the undocumented community to] access county services without fear of getting on a train that leads toward deportation.”
The legislation would codify some of the policy shifts Ball announced earlier this year.
In September, Ball implemented a policy clarification that the Jessup detention center would only accept immigration detainees from ICE who are convicted of a “crime of violence,” such as murder, rape or first-degree assault. Previously, the county’s 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.
The Liberty Act would also take former County Executive Allan Kittleman’s 2017 policy one step further. During Kittleman’s administration, the police department released a policy that said they do not ask about immigration status except in investigations of suspected criminal activity. Jones said his legislation takes this policy and applies it to other county agencies; whether at a Howard County public school or visiting a county agency, employees will not be allowed to question immigration status.
“I’m focused on making sure that no county employee has anything to do with any unsolicited cooperation with ICE baring any state or federal law in place,” Jones said.
At this point, Jones said he’s unsure of how or who would enforce the legislation. That’s a conversation he expects to have during the council’s work session Monday. He said answers to that question will be seen through amendments or subsequent legislation.
The Liberty Act is very similar in wording to previous legislation introduced by then-Council members Ball and Jen Terrasa that was commonly referred to at the time as the “Sanctuary Bill.” However, Jones said he wouldn’t call his bill sanctuary legislation.
There was a contentious debate on the legislation in 2017 and, though the County Council passed the legislation, Kittleman later vetoed it and an override of the veto failed in the council.
“This bill has elements of [the 2017 bill] and elements of the policy change from Allan Kittleman, elements of the policy change from Calvin Ball and some language in there that CASA and [the Foreign-Born Information and Referral Network] and immigration lawyers and activists gave us,” Jones said.
Representatives from CASA, FIRN, the ACLU of Maryland, Friends of Latin America, Coalition for Immigration Justice and Capital Area Immigrant Rights Coalition all testified in support of the legislation during Monday’s public hearing.
The bill comes after months of discussion and protests from the community on the county’s relationship with ICE. Ball declined to say whether he would support the legislation, saying through spokesperson Scott Peterson that he will await final passage before announced support or opposition.
Besides Howard, Frederick and Worcester are the other two counties in the state 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.
In October, County Council Vice Chair Liz Walsh introduced legislation to completely end the county’s contract with ICE. Though the legislation passed in a 3-2 vote, Ball vetoed the legislation. On Nov. 2 at the council meeting, an override of Ball’s veto failed in a 2-2-1 vote, with Council member Christiana Mercer Rigby abstaining. Four votes were needed in the council to override Ball’s veto.
Jorge Benitez Perez, an organizer with CASA, said the group was pleased to see Jones’ legislation but is still advocating to get ICE out of Howard County.
“This is a protection from the discrimination that has been happening where immigrants have been turned over to ICE,” Perez said. “Right now the immigrant community will take any help it can get because right now immigrants are being hunted down.”
Jones said, if his legislation passed, “Any undocumented immigrants would immediately feel safer calling 911, going to the hospital or going to school property [in Howard County].”