Updated March 24, 2:32 pm:
Maryland could soon be out of the business of detaining immigrants if the Senate passes a bill that cleared the House of Delegates last week by a veto proof 86-44 majority in the Democratic controlled chamber.
The bill passed the House a day before crossover day, the last day during the 90-day session when one chamber can pass a bill to the other for consideration without added procedural road blacks. Bills can still get passed after crossover day but the hurdles are greater as the session comes to a close.
The Dignity Not Detention Act would prohibit county governments from entering into agreements with ICE or private prison companies contracted by the agency to hold detainees.
The bill further prohibits the counties of Frederick, Howard, and Worcester from renewing existing contacts with ICE.
The three counties have enjoyed a windfall from detention center agreements over the last decade and together receive nearly $10 million in federal payments annually to house immigrant detainees. Worcester alone receives $5.2 million, which represents over half of the county’s $10 million detention center budget. Frederick County receives $1 million and Howard County receives $2.9 million.
Immigrant advocacy groups say the agreements with the three county governments incentivize holding as many immigrants as long as possible because ICE pays the counties per detainee.
Advocacy groups also say the vast majority of the detainees are law abiding citizens being held in “deplorable conditions.”
The Republican minority in the House last week made sweeping claims the bill threatens public safety and attracts illegal immigrants to Maryland.
There’s been no evidence that immigrants pose any more of a danger to communities than non-immigrants.
In floor debate on Friday, Delegate Nino Mangione, R-Baltimore County, said the bill was “a billboard to every single illegal alien in this country to come to Maryland.”
Del. Jesse T. Pippy, R-Frederick, said the bill suggests that “if you are here illegally and commit additional crimes there are no consequences.”
“This legislation usurps local authority and will have a significant adverse impact on public safety,” he said.
But the bill’s author, Vaughn Stewart, D-Montgomery, said the agreements with ICE have little to do with public safety.
“The bill is about a depraved federal agency paying counties and private prison companies to pick up regular Marylanders for dumb reasons and subject them to inhumane conditions,” he said during floor debate on Friday. “The bill stops counties and private prison companies from profiting from the mistreatment of our neighbors.”
Stewart spoke of a man named Pedro who came to the US when he was seven in 1998 and was recently placed in detention for eight months, of which 45 days was spent in solitary confinement.
Pedro told the House Judiciary Committee that conditions at the detention centers were “horrendous” and that a man in the cell next to him was contemplating suicide.
Stewart said history would look back on the detention centers with “horror.”
The three detention centers have been cited in audits for illegal conduct that included excessive strip searches and failure to provide medical treatment.
Stewart said supporting the bill was a vote for human decency.
“Maryland is better than ICE and its detention centers,” he said.
Delegate David Moon, D-Montgomery, a co-sponsor of the bill, said the anti-immigrant sentiment opposing the bill in recent days was an attempted to instill prejudice and fear by connecting the immigrant community to 911 and COVID-19.
“A majority of these ICE detainees are not criminals,” he said. “The crime for most of them was crossing the border.”
He said a large percentage of current ICE detainees were picked up during traffic stops.
“When we allow the counties to AirBNB all these spare jail cells they fill them with our neighbors, the non-criminal ones,” he said.
He said passage of the bill would send a clear message that Maryland does not “balance budgets using family separation.”
The bill was inspired in part by the Town of Sudlersville’s vote last year to rezone town property to accommodate a detention center for Immigration Centers of America – in an attempt to mitigate the town’s staggering debt. The plan met opposition from the community and ICA eventually pulled out claiming “federal funding issues.”
In a statement to the Kent Pilot on Tuesday, Del. Steve Arentz, R-Queen Anne’s, said immigrant detention centers provided well paying jobs and that being in the US illegally is a crime.
“The bill as written stops three of our detention centers from housing illegal immigrants, Illegal immigrants that have committed additional crimes in this country,” he said in written statement. “This bill would require them being moved to another facility in another state. This bill represents jobs in Maryland, well paying jobs. While many want to argue circumstance the bottom line is the word ‘illegal.’ How does anyone expect us to willingly disobey the law? By now you would have expected Congress and the Senate to address this very serious issue in our country.”
Arentz provided nothing to support the comment that detainees in Maryland committed additional crimes besides crossing the border.
Feature image by Becker1999/Flickr