Legislation that prohibits Howard County agencies from cooperating with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement passed in a 4-1 vote by the Council Council on Monday night.
The Liberty Act, introduced last month by council member Opel Jones, also prevents county employees from questioning or reporting the immigration status of anyone using county services, visiting county buildings or in county public schools.
“I’m ecstatic about the legislation passing,” Jones said Tuesday. “I’m thinking about those that want to feel safe in our communities and want to use our resources and now can.”
The legislation passed with six amendments introduced by Jones and council members Liz Walsh and Christiana Mercer Rigby. Jones said the amendments were added to ensure the legislation was clear.
“The fact that amendments were needed was to strengthen the bill,” Jones said.
County Executive Calvin Ball signed the legislation into law Thursday.
“I am proud to sign council member Dr. Opel Jones’ Liberty Act legislation to further protect innocent, undocumented residents in Howard County,” Ball said in a statement.
The legislation’s passage follows a year filled with protests, policy changes and legislation introduced to amend the county’s relationship with ICE.
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.
In September, Ball implemented a policy clarification that the 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.
If signed into law, the Liberty Act would extend a policy set in 2017 during the administration of former County Executive Allan Kittleman that prohibited county police from asking about immigration status except in investigations of suspected criminal activity.
During a public hearing last month, representatives from CASA, Foreign-Born Information and Referral Network, 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.
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 in October, shortly after legislation to permanently end the county’s contract with ICE was vetoed by Ball. Jones was seeking to craft legislation that would mirror trust acts already in place in neighboring Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, as well as Baltimore City.
“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.”
Jones said he wanted to introduce the legislation to ensure that it was not just policy but a law that protected the immigrant community in Howard County.
“A lot of the things in the bill we already do,” Jones said. “The beautiful thing is they can’t get changed by a future county executive or the current county executive; it would have to be changed legislatively to change this policy.”
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David Yungmann, the sole County Council member who voted against the legislation Monday, said moving the policy into code is something “we’re going to regret, or future councils are going to regret.”
Yungmann said the undocumented immigrant community has long feared law enforcement and that this legislation would not change that.
“I keep hearing this narrative that by passing this bill people who are afraid to report crimes are now all of the sudden going to not be afraid to report crimes,” Yungmann said at the meeting. “It seems kind of far-fetched to think this is going to have a big impact on people who already have those fears.”
County Council member Deb Jung, who voted in support of the Liberty Act, said much of what the legislation addresses has been taking place for years.
“Codifying this really is a recognition of the importance to Howard County of our immigrant population,” Jung said.
Also during the last vote of the year, the council chose new leadership positions for 2021. Walsh was elected chair and Jones was elected vice chair.
The council will meet again Dec. 14 for a monthly meeting.