A Maryland lawmaker is working on a bill that would ban privately run immigrant detention facilities and phase out the state’s role in immigration detention by October 2021 — a measure intended to counter federal plans to open such a facility near Baltimore.
Del. Vaughn Stewart, a Montgomery County Democrat, confirmed Tuesday that he hopes to introduce the bill when the Maryland General Assembly’s legislative session begins in January. A draft version of the bill, modeled off a similar law passed in October in California, has generated interest from the Legislative Latino Caucus, of which Stewart is an associate member, he said.
Maryland has three existing ICE detention centers: in Frederick, Howard and Worcester counties.
It’s too early to determine the proposal’s prospects of becoming state law. But Stewart is optimistic of the bill’s potential for a co-sponsor in the House of Delegates and said he is searching for state senator willing to file a version of the bill in that chamber.
Stewart began work on the measure after learning about an advertisement published in April by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials seeking parties interested in opening an immigration detention center capable of housing 600 to 800 people with 50 miles of Baltimore.
“My heart goes out to any town, city or locality that is cash-strapped, but we should not let them receive a get-out-of-jail solvency ticket on the backs of immigrants.”
The ICE ad received responses from companies including the Virginia-based private government contractor Immigration Centers of America.
The contractor and its lobbyists spent the fall courting the small Queen Anne’s County town of Sudlersville to host a private immigration detention center similar to its ICE facility in Farmville, Virginia. A company spokesman said ICA has since halted efforts to expand into Maryland for federal budgetary reasons.
Stewart also cited federal immigration policies, including family separations at the border, among the reasons for bringing his proposal to end the state’s role in detention.
“Maryland should not be involved in the depravity that ICE has been perpetrating in this country,” he said. “This legislation sends a clear message that no one should profit from other people’s misery.”
ICE officials did not respond to a request for comment by the original deadline for publication, citing personnel changes.
In a statement provided Thursday Dec. 19, ICE spokeswoman Kate Pote said the agency was “not involved in project or proposal discussions for a facility in Queen Anne’s County. Such talks in this context appear to be occurring between the private sector and the local government entity involved.”
Pote also said ICE uses its detention authority judiciously and holds detainees in custody for removal, not punitive purposes.
“ICE is committed to the safe, secure and humane care of its detainees, providing detainees access to health, legal and consular services, and facilitating family contact and communication,” Pote said. “These services and accommodations are best provided when ICE is able to maintain a purpose-built facility for its detainees which is locally accessible to families, consular officials, attorneys, local health care resources and other stakeholders.”
Still, some Sudlersville leaders and residents told The Baltimore Sun this week they were crestfallen ICA abruptly shelved its pursuit of building a private immigrant detention facility in their town of about 500 people. Some were counting on the facility to help alleviate the municipality’s approximately $6 million in debt incurred for water and sewer upgrades for a housing development that fell through with the housing bust.
Before ICA changed course, Sudlersville officials were given tours of ICA’s similar facility in south central Virginia and were considering zoning changes to allow for a detention center within town limits. Opponents had begun to mobilize.
Town commission President Ronald Ford said he was heartbroken by ICA’s withdrawal and could not understand opposition to the project.
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“Write me a check, we’ll leave it out of there," Ford said of opponents to the project. “I can’t put it any other way. We need a way to pay our bills on time."
As immigration authorities have proposed creating new detention centers across the country, grassroots efforts opposing the projects also have surfaced.
Stewart said he received a wave of phone calls about his bill Monday from concerned immigration advocates who had learned of ICA’s activity in Sudlersville.
“As someone who represents all of Maryland, we all have a stake if our state contributes to the detainment and suffering of people,” Stewart said. “My heart goes out to any town, city or locality that is cash-strapped, but we should not let them receive a get-out-of-jail solvency ticket on the backs of immigrants.”
Isobel Fields, 80, has lived in Sudlersville with her husband, Gary, since the couple relocated from West Virginia in 1959. A retired schoolteacher, Fields felt that people on “the other side of the bridge” who oppose immigration detention centers do not know what’s best for her town.
“I just feel those people way out there who have nothing to do with Sudlersville shouldn’t tell me what to do," she said. “Sudlersville is in deep, deep debt. They shouldn’t tell us how to live.”