For the last 26 years, Howard County has been benefiting from their contract with ICE, or US Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, receiving roughly $2.8 million a year from the majority privatized imprisonment system. According to their website, ICE’s mission is to “protect America from the cross-border crime and illegal immigration that threaten national security and public safety.” However, many of the ICE detainees are mistreated and develop health problems as a result of their imprisonment, according to reports from the Department of Homeland Security. Since 2003, there have been at least 185 deaths nationwide, many the result of medical neglect.
ICE detention centers have been known to use inhumane practices on their detainees, and immigrant advocacy groups in Howard County have been fighting for years to end the government’s contract with ICE. In October of 2020, a Homeland Security report was released detailing numerous human rights violations by the Howard County Detention Center (HCDC), specifically.
“We determined HCDC excessively strip-searched ICE detainees leaving their housing unit to attend activities within the facility, in violation of ICE detention standards and the facility’s own search policy,” stated the Homeland Security Report. “In addition, HCDC failed to provide detainees with two hot meals per day, as required. For those in segregation, HCDC did not consistently document that detainees received three meals a day and daily medical visits. Further, HCDC did not properly document the handling of detainee medical grievances.” Despite these numerous violations, it wasn’t until March 22, over a year later, that the contract was ended with ICE.
Before March 22, there had been other attempts by legislators to end the contract or at least make significant changes. In September of 2020, Calvin Ball announced that the detention centers would only house detainees convicted of violent crimes as opposed to general crimes, which had been the rule before. Violent crimes include murder, rape, manslaughter, and robbery. However, this change came after Howard County Councilmember Liz Walsh introduced a bill, CB51in September of 2020 by which aimed to formally end the ICE Contract.
“The final push [to propose CB51] was the advocacy we saw over the summer, and that there seemed to be momentum growing locally in support of ending the contract,” said Walsh. “The Hoco for Justice group came out and marched with the same immigration advocates that had been working on this for years, and it was really cool and really moving to see those different groups coalescing around the same issue. When I saw that, I felt like it was time. Well, it was really past time, but it couldn’t wait any longer.”
The Bill that was sponsored by Councilmember Walsh passed 3-2, but Howard County Executive Calvin Ball vetoed the vote. This meant that, despite the vote from the council members, the HCDC would continue to function.
Local advocacy group Howard County Coalition for Immigrant Justice, or HCCIJ, with ties to Centennial through the Young Socialist Movement, expressed their disappointment with the decision. The HCCIJ is composed of around twenty different advocacy groups and named ending the ICE Contract in their mission statement. They have not let the decision on CB51 interfere with their work, however.
“I was very emotional when I heard that he vetoed it, especially because I was a fan of Calvin Ball in the past, but we stayed the course,” recognized Thaí Moreira, a member of the HCCIJ. “[But] we understood that it would not be a smooth sail, and we expected bumps in the road. We [kept the focus] on our messaging and on why we were doing this.”
Despite the veto, the HCCIJ continued advocating to put pressure on the Howard County Council.
“We did a lot of grassroots mobilization,” said Moreira. “We also had the big events prior to the pandemic; we had a lot of town hall meetings in which we invited people who had been personally affected by the ICE Detention Center [to talk]. I think that was very impactful to hear what the detention center or being detained did to the family.”
Ying Matties, another member of the HCCIJ, agreed that they worked to put the affected community at the forefront of the issue.
“We really try to center the voice and the experience of the people who have been impacted. Many of the coalition members work with people who have been detained,” said Matties. “Working with the community has always been first and foremost.”
In March of 2021, the Maryland state legislature passed the Dignity not Detention Act, which aimed towards preventing the state from entering into any agreements with private groups facilitating immigrant detention. The passing of this act put even more pressure on the Howard County legislature, and just days later, on March 22, Howard County passed a bill that formally ended the ICE contract.
The legislation, once ending the contract, required a 60 day notification period, so the detainees were allowed to be held until May 18. After May 18, Howard County removed all ICE detainees from their facilities, fully shutting down the program.
The HCCIJ was thrilled with the outcome, as it was the result of years of hard work from all of the groups included.
“It was [the] sheer persistence of those advocates, they are very persistent [and] they are highly organized,” recognized Walsh. “They wanted that contract canceled and they hounded it. They started showing up at press releases and conferences [with] their signs, and people don’t like when you do that, but it sure makes a point. At a certain point, they could have done everything they possibly could have done, and I thought it was my turn to do what needed to be done.”
The HCCIJ and Councilmember Walsh are currently working to inform voters about a referendum aiming to overturn a sanctuary law. For more information on the HCCIJ, visit their Twitter (@HC_Immigrants) and Instagram (@hcimmigrantjustice).
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