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Federal immigration reform may be the goal, but there are still actions we can take today in Maryland | COMMENTARY

Lilian, photographed at her residence in Baltimore, is an immigrant who endured the anguish of separation from her young daughter. She has been helped by Seneca Family of Agencies, a nonprofit that connects Baltimore immigrant families with free mental health services after hardships in detention centers and other traumas. Dec. 13, 2020. p3
Lilian, photographed at her residence in Baltimore, is an immigrant who endured the anguish of separation from her young daughter. She has been helped by Seneca Family of Agencies, a nonprofit that connects Baltimore immigrant families with free mental health services after hardships in detention centers and other traumas. Dec. 13, 2020. p3 (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

In a matter of just a few days after being sworn into office, President Joe Biden and his administration have already taken bold steps to reverse some of the former president’s anti-immigrant and racist policies. From revoking the Muslim ban to preserving Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), there is no question that immigrant families across the country can breathe a sigh of relief. However, swift action by a federal judge in Texas to block Mr. Biden’s 100-day deportation freeze reminds us that we can’t exhale completely. The road to federal immigration reform is a long one. Right now, we can’t loosen our grip on statewide reforms that are critical to protecting immigrant families right here in Maryland.

The legislative session is moving rapidly, and the recent controversy around the RELIEF Act amendment to get stimulus checks to taxpaying immigrants illustrates how critical it is for Maryland to address the urgent needs of immigrant families in Maryland. Several immigration reform bills are being introduced this session that are Paramount for the lives and livelihoods of Maryland’s growing immigrant population.

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First and foremost, the Trust Act. The Trust Act (Senate Bill 88/House Bill 304), which would limit state and local law enforcement’s partnership with ICE, has been pushed by advocates for almost a decade and remains the No. 1 priority for tens of thousands of immigrant families in the state. The bill also ensures that policies are created to prohibit ICE from entering sensitive locations like hospitals, which has only become more and more vital during the pandemic. In addition to improving public safety and stopping the expenditure of precious local dollars for federal enforcement efforts, the Trust Act would be a tremendous step forward in repairing the little trust that the immigrant community has in a government that has separated countless families.

The Trust Act is not the only piece of legislation needed to restore community trust. Undocumented residents remain betrayed by the broken promise that legislators made about their security when they extended driving privileges to undocumented residents back in 2013. After nearly 40,000 undocumented drivers got their licenses, ICE began dipping into the MVA database — without a warrant — and used driver database information to find and deport them. Not only is this morally unconscionable, but it defeats the purpose of the intent of the 2013 bill: to keep our roads safer. The Maryland Driver Privacy Act (S.B. 234/H.B. 23) is a crucial bill that will address this by keeping ICE from accessing undocumented drivers’ personal information without a warrant.

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And then, there is the crisis of ICE detention. Three local jails in Maryland continue to renew their contracts to detain immigrants on behalf of ICE. While these counties have chosen to contribute to ICE’s massive national dragnet, stories piled up over the summer detailing human rights abuses, medical malpractice and neglect. ICE detention’s dark realities have only been amplified during the pandemic, making tragic situations into ones of life and death. To further the crisis, ICE is exploring opening a new massive ICE detention center in rural Maryland. The Dignity Not Detention Act (S.B. 478/H.B. 16), being introduced for the second time this session, would end local contracts with ICE and keep private ICE detention out of Maryland.

A Right-to-Counsel bill (S.B. 317/H.B. 750) is also vital in decreasing Maryland’s population of detained immigrants by ensuring that detained immigrants facing deportation have a legal right to a lawyer and, therefore, due process. While people accused of crimes are granted government-funded representation, immigrants facing deportation are not. This leads to longer times behind bars and the extraordinary feat of navigating complex immigration law alone.

While these bills may seem small compared to the federal reform we strive for, they would be transformational in the lives of Black and brown immigrants in Maryland. The pandemic has highlighted how crucial immigrant families are in our state, as we have watched them work on the front lines and keep us afloat during this health crisis. Yet, Maryland has failed to protect them by passing these common-sense bills. Now is the time.

We will continue to pressure President Biden for overhauls of the immigration system. In the meantime, legislators, meet your obligation to immigrant families right here in Maryland.

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Cathryn Ann Paul (Twitter: @cathrynannpaul) is a research and policy analyst for CASA (@CASAforall), the Mid-Atlantic’s largest immigrant and Latino advocacy group, serving 100,000 lifetime members in Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania.

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