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Maryland House passes bill ending county jail contracts to house ICE detainees

Maryland lawmakers took a step toward banning local jails from being paid by the federal government to house people detained on immigration matters.

The program, in which U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement pays jails to house the detainees, has come under fire in the handful of Maryland counties that participate in it.

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Housing detainees is a way for local governments to raise money when they have empty space in their jails. Opponents argue that local jails shouldn’t participate in and profit from immigration enforcement, which is a federal matter.

Immigration advocates protest the jailing of undocumented immigrants in close quarters at Howard County Detention Center during the COVID-19 pandemic

“Maryland is better than ICE and its detention centers,” said Del. Vaughn Stewart, a Montgomery County Democrat and sponsor of the “Dignity Not Detention Act,” which passed the House of Delegates on Thursday on an 88-64 vote.

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Stewart’s bill would require the three counties housing ICE detainees — Frederick, Howard and Worcester — to end their agreements by Oct. 1, 2022.

The bill also bans local governments and the state government from subsidizing the construction of any privately-run immigration detention centers.

The bill’s Senate sponsor, Judicial Proceedings Committee Chairman William C. Smith Jr., said he hopes senators will consider the legislation over the remaining three weeks of session. But Smith, a Montgomery County Democrat, worried that intense debates over other big issues — major policing reforms, an overhaul of the state’s parole and juvenile justice systems — could dominate the agenda and leave little time for another hotly debated proposal.

The debate over whether local jails should house immigrant detainees has been particularly intense in Howard County, where residents have periodically protested outside the county jail in Jessup. Howard has had a contract to hold immigration detainees since 1995.

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Under pressure, Howard County Executive Calvin Ball, a Democrat, changed the county’s policy last year to hold only those “convicted of violent crimes” to be held in the Jessup jail on behalf of ICE.

Howard’s prior policy allowed the jail to house ICE detainees convicted of any crime, gang members, deported people who returned to the U.S. and those charged with jailable offenses.

The Howard County Council passed a bill last fall to end the county’s contract with ICE, but Ball vetoed it.

Federal inspectors issued a report last fall after finding in 2019 that the Howard jail excessively strip-searched detainees and failed to always provide three hot meals per day as required. The county’s corrections director said the report didn’t reflect the current policies and treatment of detainees.

Howard is paid about $2.8 million per year under its ICE contract, which makes up about 13% of the jail’s total $21 million budget, according to a nonpartisan legislative analysis.

The other counties with ICE contracts are Frederick County ($1 million per year) and Worcester County ($4 million per year). Worcester’s payments from ICE make up 42% of the budget for the jail, according to the nonpartisan analysis.

Anne Arundel County briefly had a contract to house ICE detainees, but the federal government canceled the contract in 2019. The cancellation came shortly after County Executive Steuart Pittman, a Democrat, ended participation in another program known as “287g” that trains local correctional officers to screen newly-booked individuals for potential immigration violations.

At the time, the county was receiving $118 per person per day to house about 130 ICE detainees at the Ordnance Road Correctional Center in Glen Burnie.

During an online public hearing on the state bill earlier this month, many people urged state delegates to pass the bill, including members of groups that advocate for immigrant rights, civil liberties and social justice.

But some said that the counties should still have the ability to enter into the detention contracts, including the head of the Maryland Association of Counties.

The Maryland Association of Counties argued in written testimony that the bill would undermine the authority of a county to run its own operations, and “management of county jail contracts and policies should be left to the discretion of those counties.”

The Worcester County Board of Commissioners said in written testimony that the county’s jail has been housing detainees since 1999 in “a safe and secure environment.” The county expanded its jail in 2011 to accommodate an influx of ICE detainees, particularly during the summer.

“Prohibition of these services and the resulting loss of revenues would be devastating to the operations of the Worcester County Jail,” wrote Joseph M. Mitrecic, president of the Worcester commissioners.

The bill now moves to the state Senate for consideration.

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