Bill takes aim at ICE detention centers in Maryland

ANNAPOLIS, Md. — Maryland lawmakers heavily debated a bill concerning ICE detention centers on Wednesday, including testimony from a previous detainee who spoke about her experience in a Maryland center.

The Dignity Not Detention Act would prevent the state’s detention centers from renewing existing contracts with ICE or private prison companies and prevent the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency from coming into Maryland in the future to build new detention centers.

Additionally, under this bill, SB0478 and HB0016, if ICE is planning to build any new detention centers in Maryland, the public would be informed.

“ICE detention is horrible, but it is a million times more horrible and devastating during the pandemic,” said Cathryn Paul, research and policy analyst at CASA, the largest immigrant services and advocacy organization in Maryland.

There have been multiple accounts of immigrants in Maryland facilities who were detained and not given masks until late into the pandemic and people who weren’t given basic necessities when they got sick, Paul said.

A vast majority of detainees have no criminal record — other than the possible immigration violations for which they are being detained — but even if they did, no one should be subject to unsafe treatment in the United States, said Del. Vaughn Stewart, D-Montgomery, a sponsor of the bill.

Maryland has three ICE detention centers, one each in Howard County, Frederick County and Worcester County.

The three jurisdictions are to receive approximately $7.8 million in total payments, based on per diem rates, from the federal government in fiscal 2021 to house individuals, under detention agreements, according to the bill’s fiscal and policy note.

Opponents of this bill make a public safety argument.

This bill is a backdoor attempt at attacking programs that aim to keep communities safe, Frederick County Sheriff Chuck Jenkins, R, said in an interview with Capital News Service.

There are a lot of false narratives about the conditions of these private detention facilities, said Shari Rendall, director of state and local engagement at the Federation for American Immigration Reform. If detention facilities don’t comply with and enforce strict standards, the United States becomes a nation without laws, Rendall said.

“Proponents of Dignity Not Detention want to make our immigration laws meaningless. Congress has entrusted ICE to enforce our immigration laws, which means that ICE has an obligation to remove those illegally in the country,” Rendall said.

The intention of this bill could backfire if ICE is required to detain people outside of Maryland because detainees would be taken further from their families and might not have access to counsel, Rendall said.

Sen. Robert Cassilly, R-Harford, indicated during a Senate committee hearing that the bill appears to be more of a political message than a measure to counter unfair treatment of undocumented immigrants.

Nora Argueta testified from El Salvador on Wednesday, speaking through a translator on Zoom. Argueta is a CASA member who was deported after living almost 18 years in the United States.

Argueta recounted for lawmakers the time she was detained for 10 months in Worcester County while she was fighting her case. None of the guards spoke Spanish, she said, even though most of the people in the detention center were Hispanic.

Her time in detention was “traumatic” and she told a story of when she grabbed onto a guard to ask for help, but they took it as an act of aggression, stripped her and held her on the ground, she said.

Proponents say this bill is connected to the broader effort of working on racial justice in Maryland and across the country.

“Legislators are finally rising up to answer the calls of the Black Lives Matter movement and take action on criminal justice reform. Dignity Not Detention is just one piece of addressing our bigger movement to end mass incarceration in Maryland,” Paul said.

A hearing is scheduled in a House of Delegates committee on March 3. If passed, this bill would go into effect July 1, 2021.

This article was provided to The Associated Press by the University of Maryland’s Capital News Service.