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How outraged activists in Maryland counties are pressuring officials to cut ties with ICE

Activists protest Howard County Executive Calvin Ball's appearance at an event because the county contracts with ICE to house federal immigration detainees. The protest took place at the Interfaith Meeting House in Columbia.
Activists protest Howard County Executive Calvin Ball's appearance at an event because the county contracts with ICE to house federal immigration detainees. The protest took place at the Interfaith Meeting House in Columbia.(Kevin Richardson / Baltimore Sun)

Activists in Frederick County forced an audit of a program that lets the local jail screen inmates for immigration violations.

In Howard County, residents blocked the detention center’s entrance to protest the county holding men awaiting deportation hearings.

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And in Cecil County, a group went to the County Council to oppose a sheriff’s office agreement with federal immigration authorities.

Local officials around Maryland face pressure from constituents who are outraged over Immigration and Customs Enforcement practices and want their elected leaders to cancel contracts with the federal agency, part of a larger national movement against the Trump administration’s immigration policies.

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The activists say their local governments are enabling an inhumane agency, pointing to the separation of families and the deaths of people in federal detention centers.

“For a lot of folks, they’re looking to these local and statewide campaigns for ways we can at least say, ‘This doesn’t fly in my neighborhood,' " said Elizabeth Alex, chief of organizing and leadership at CASA, a statewide immigration advocacy group. "It’s kind of a moment of ‘Which side are you on?’ ”

County officials counter that they are protecting public safety. At a recent Howard County Council meeting, county corrections director Jack Kavanagh said ICE detainees "can’t come to us if they’re charged with anything less than a jailable offense.”

“I understand the advocates’ dislike of some of the president’s actions," Kavanagh said in an interview later. “They think that whatever is going on there [at the border] must be here. ... It’s not. We don’t have women. We don’t have children."

Howard officials say the jail only accepts ICE detainees who “pose a public safety threat," not those whose only offense was to enter the United States illegally. Advocates dispute that, saying immigrants who are undocumented but present no danger to the community have been locked up.

Around the country, cities including Nashville and Philadelphia have ended deals with ICE amid public concern. Activists also have targeted universities and companies that have ties to ICE. In September, the Johns Hopkins University said it would end a contract under which its medical school trained federal immigration agents in responding to medical emergencies.

In Maryland, Howard is one of three counties that receive money from ICE to house people detained by the federal agency at their jails. The contracts, also held by Frederick and Worcester counties, generate millions of dollars per year for the local governments.

Also at issue in Maryland is a program called 287(g), in which ICE trains local police in federal immigration law so county jails can screen inmates for immigration violations. Frederick, Harford and Cecil counties participate in that program.

Activists protest Howard County Executive Calvin Ball's appearance at an event because the county contracts with ICE to house federal immigration detainees. The protest took place at the Interfaith Meeting House in Columbia.
Activists protest Howard County Executive Calvin Ball's appearance at an event because the county contracts with ICE to house federal immigration detainees. The protest took place at the Interfaith Meeting House in Columbia.(Kevin Richardson / Baltimore Sun)

In 2018, immigration advocates were heartened when Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman ended the county’s participation in the 287(g) program in one of his first moves in office. Later, ICE canceled its contract at the county jail.

Now activists are continuing to press Howard County Executive Calvin Ball, also a Democrat elected in 2018, over his county’s jail contract. They had hoped Ball, who sponsored a “sanctuary” bill as a councilman, would be open to ending the deal. So far, the county administration has not signaled that it plans to. Ball was unavailable for an interview, a spokesman said.

In Columbia this week, a group of protesters gathered with signs as Ball spoke at a Holocaust remembrance event.

“Ball sells out immigrants for $14+ million," one sign read, referring to the amount the county has received through the contract since 2013.

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“Howard County Profits from Jailing the ‘Other,' ” read another.

Opponents of the contract say it’s wrong for the county to receive money from ICE.

The jail agreement, which dates to 1995 and has been amended over time, generated roughly $2.6 million last fiscal year, according to the corrections department. The county gets a daily rate of $110 per ICE inmate. At a council meeting in January, Democratic Councilwoman Liz Walsh said she was concerned the county is “profiteering off of this program.”

ICE inmates stay an average of 90 days, though there are outliers, Kavanagh told the council. The daily ICE population at the county jail fluctuates, but the average is more than 80 people.

“Working with and benefiting financially from working with an organization like that [ICE] is just unethical as far as I’m concerned,” said Columbia Jewish Congregation Rabbi Sonya Starr, who has taken part in protests including a 2019 gathering outside the Jessup center on Tisha B’Av, the Jewish day of mourning. "It’s immoral.”

In a statement to The Baltimore Sun, ICE officials said that both the jail contracts and the 287(g) programs “are essential elements in our cooperative efforts" to protect public safety. Baltimore Field Office Director Diane L. Witte said that 287(g) helps prevent criminals from re-offending in the community, while the jail agreements help ensure detainees "will be close to family and counsel, which eases the travel burden on family and counsel regarding visitation and effective representation.”

“For a lot of folks, they’re looking to these local and statewide campaigns for ways we can at least say, ‘This doesn’t fly in my neighborhood.’ "


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In Frederick County, activists pushed for an audit, now underway, of the county’s 287(g) program. The financial audit will assess how much the audit has cost local taxpayers.

Frederick County Sheriff Chuck Jenkins said his staff is cooperating with auditors, but he called the audit political and “unnecessary.”

“This group of people who oppose me and the program demanded the audit,” said Jenkins, a Republican first elected in 2006. “It’s a political mess. A very small percentage of county residents oppose the program."

Jenkins called the program a “public safety tool” that has helped deport more than 1,500 criminals, including more than 110 gang members.

Frederick County also houses ICE detainees under a contract with the federal government. It’s received roughly $13 million in reimbursement under the agreement since 2008, Jenkins said.

Jenkins faces a federal lawsuit alleging racial discrimination by the sheriff’s office against Latino residents. In the lawsuit, Sara Medrano alleges that she was racially profiled and illegally detained during a traffic stop by two sheriff’s deputies in 2018. The sheriff said he couldn’t discuss specifics of the case because of the pending litigation, but said his deputies do not take part in racial profiling.

It’s concerns about such profiling that have prompted scrutiny, said Juliana Downey, a Frederick County resident and member of the RISE Coalition of Western Maryland, which is a plaintiff in the lawsuit.

"They’re really in many ways destroying trust with the very community that they’re supposed to be serving,” Downey said.

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Some residents of Cecil County also have recently begun asking questions about that county’s 287(g) program.

Tim Rothermel, an Elkton resident who attended a Cecil County Council meeting in December to protest the agreement with ICE, said he is concerned the program is a waste of taxpayer money and will put “a target on our friends in the immigrant community.”

Rothermel said local concerns are fueled by stories from across the nation.

“They see the children that are in camps," he said of the residents who are protesting the program. "They see the family separation. They’re disgusted and disturbed that now the county that they live in is participating in that machine.”

Kavanagh, the Howard County corrections director, takes issue with such comparisons.

"We’re not caging up children and families” at the detention center, he said.

To Molly Amster of Jews United for Justice, “it doesn’t matter what conditions we’re holding people in here — it’s wrong to be partnering with such an agency. Any detention is family separation.”

In a statement, Ball spokesman Scott Peterson said county officials are addressing community concerns with “complete transparency.” He said there are “misperceptions” about who is being held at the local jail.

“County Executive Ball will always welcome dialogue with people who are working to uphold Howard County’s shared values of diversity, inclusion, and civility towards all,” he said. “We stand with the immigrants in our community whether they have been here for decades or are new to our community.”

Baltimore Jews against ICE along with various community groups are protesting at the Howard County Detention Center in August. Jews and allies throughout Maryland are demonstrating publicly that they will not turn their backs on refugees arriving in the U.S or on the immigrant residence already in America.
Baltimore Jews against ICE along with various community groups are protesting at the Howard County Detention Center in August. Jews and allies throughout Maryland are demonstrating publicly that they will not turn their backs on refugees arriving in the U.S or on the immigrant residence already in America.(Xavier Plater/Baltimore Sun)

Howard County officials have been adamant that all ICE detainees at the local jail fall into one of four categories: They are convicted of crimes, charged with jailable offenses, members of criminal gangs, or previously deported felons who have illegally re-entered the country.

ICE inmates recently held at the detention center were charged with crimes ranging from drug possession to rape, according to information Kavanagh provided to the council.

But CASA representatives pointed to the case of a 33-year-old father of three who works in construction and ended up at the jail — and eventually deported — after a traffic accident.

Eddy, who is from Guatemala, said Howard County police arrived when his tire blew out on Route 32 in September 2017. Eddy told The Sun he came to the United States illegally more than a decade ago. Years ago, he said, immigration officials raided a job site where he was working in Miami. After unsuccessfully trying to get a work permit, he agreed to voluntarily leave the country, but never did. Eventually he settled in Maryland.

The Baltimore Sun is not publishing his full name due to safety concerns.

Eddy said that after the traffic accident in Howard County, authorities took him to the Jessup detention center before he was sent to facilities in Pennsylvania and Louisiana and later deported.

Then, in 2018, he said, he walked 27 days through the desert to get back to the United States. Speaking through a CASA translator, Eddy said in an interview that he was determined to come back to be with his three children.

Kavanagh confirmed that Eddy was brought to the detention center for several days in September of 2017. After The Sun requested comment on the case, Kavanagh said he learned that Eddy’s case did not fit the criteria required under Howard County’s policy.

"We’re trying to find out how he got here, because it was not done through the normal process,” said Kavanagh, who added that he was reaching out to federal immigration authorities to get more details.

Activists say they’ll continue to put pressure on Howard County. They are now preparing for a town hall event in February.

“Politicians don’t change unless there’s pressure from their constituents,” said Laurie Liskin of the Howard County Coalition for Immigrant Justice. “All politics is local.”

Baltimore Sun visual journalist Kevin Richardson contributed to this article.

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