Maryland’s ‘Dignity Not Detention Act’ Will Deliver Neither

Localities lose money, alien detainees lose family support, and the public will be less safe

By Andrew R. Arthur on May 13, 2021

The Maryland state legislature passed HB 16, the “Dignity Not Detention Act”, this week. It’s the sort of legislation “progressive” legislators pass when they have little understanding of how our immigration system — or the world — works. It won’t have much impact on ICE detention, but it will move detainees farther away from family, while costing localities — and their residents.

Briefly, that bill would prohibit local jurisdictions and the state from entering into and renewing ICE detention agreements, prohibit state and local law enforcement from inquiring into the immigration status of suspected illegal aliens, and limit transfers of state and local criminals to ICE.

The Baltimore Sun reports that at the present time, three Maryland counties — Worcester, Howard, and Frederick — have such contracts with ICE to detain aliens.

Howard County, over the years, has placed significant restrictions on its 26-year-old detention contract, as I explained in a December 2019 post. Last September, County Executive Calvin Ball (D) announced that Howard would only detain aliens convicted of violent crimes. That contract is slated to end by May 18 in any event, and Howard County is presently holding just two ICE detainees.

Worcester and Frederick do not have similar restrictions.

Prior to the pandemic, Frederick received approximately $1.5 million annually from its contract, which was paid into the county’s general fund (although some went into upkeep of the jail).

Worcester, which has had its contract since 1999, has the capacity to hold 200 ICE detainees, but has averaged about 160 (more recently, it was holding 21).

More than half of its detention center’s annual budget of late has come from its ICE contract (last year, the detention center got $3.5 million from ICE, 36 percent of its total budget), and “the revenue loss could put 26 jobs at their jail at risk,” according to the Sun.

Worcester appears to have made an investment in immigration detention, as the county expanded its jail in 2011 from 319 beds to 502, in part to accommodate ICE detainees. I say “in part” because the county is home to Ocean City, a popular local beach resort, which apparently boosts the number of arrestees in warmer months.

The Sun reports that Gov. Larry Hogan (R) is expected to veto the bill, but it passed both chambers with veto-proof majorities, so unless cooler heads prevail, ICE will be taking its business elsewhere.

Why exactly would the Maryland legislature want to end those ICE contracts, and not detain (among others) violent alien criminals? As per the Sun: “The bill’s supporters said counties should not be making money from jailing immigrants.”

Of course, all wardens, correctional officers, and prison staff earn their living from detaining people (some of whom, it should be noted, are simply facing charges and have not yet been convicted), but apparently, some majority of the Free State’s representatives disapprove of the immigration laws of the United States, and this is their way of expressing that disapproval.

This is an unusual point in political history to take such steps, because as I have noted previously, the Biden administration has, in essence, stopped enforcing the immigration laws in the interior for all but the most serious criminals and national-security threats.

Biden’s restrictions on immigration enforcement include detention, and between those policies and pandemic protocols, ICE is currently holding about 15,000 aliens, down from a high of 56,000. I have good news for the representatives in Annapolis who think that people should not be making money from detaining immigrants: Fewer are, period.

That said, HB 16 is short-sighted for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that many of the aliens who are presently detained by ICE in Maryland live in the area, and are close to the Baltimore Immigration Court and a large cadre of skilled immigration lawyers.

Ending immigration detention in Frederick and Worcester Counties will force ICE to move those detainees to areas where the agency does have space, such as Louisiana, as I explained in an October 2019 post.

That means venue in their cases may be moved to circuits with a stricter interpretation of the immigration laws that the Fourth Circuit (which has jurisdiction over Maryland), and that loved ones and current legal representatives will have to fly a few hours (or drive many) to make in-person visits.

One research and policy analyst with the immigrant advocacy group CASA of Maryland was quoted in the Sun as stating that unspecified “community members who were impacted by this bill understood that” aliens would be moved, but “still advocated for this bill because the bottom line is that when there is space to detain people, that space will be filled”.

I don’t want to disagree with that individual or her group, but that’s not how immigration detention works. The law requires that aliens who have been convicted of certain crimes must be detained (a fine point that the Biden administration elides in many cases), but even the current president knows that certain aliens are too dangerous to be released.

They are going to be detained somewhere, and if not close to home and family, then someplace likely less amenable than the Worcester County lock-up, where the Immigration and Nationality Act is applied less leniently, and much farther away.

The restrictions on transferring aliens to ICE custody “unless required by federal law” in HB 16 are no less boneheaded, especially under Biden.

ICE generally only requests that aliens be transferred to its custody if they have criminal arrests or convictions. Under the Biden administration, the agency is even choosier in its interior enforcement efforts, and only “prioritizes” (read: “arrests, detains, and removes”) aliens who pose a national security threat, have been convicted of aggravated felonies, or have engaged in some serious gang activity.

Those are not the sort of folks whom most of the population wants back on the street (and whether its localities recognize it or not, Maryland has a serious gang problem), but under HB 16, the odds that those national security risks and criminals make it back into the community will increase, exponentially.

It’s arguable whether “federal law” requires any state or locality to transfer a murderer or rapist to ICE when the agency asks, but the bill guarantees that the cops and wardens will err on the side of caution (to their own careers and pensions, not necessarily to public safety) and let those criminals go.

I appeared before a state senate committee in Annapolis last year to testify on similar legislation, and respectfully, the panel was not terribly aware of immigration law, let alone its implementation.

Sheriff Chuck Jenkins from Frederick County offered a pretty persuasive argument against that bill (and then left to perform CPR on a bill proponent until an ambulance arrived, if memory serves), but most of the other witnesses were simply angry or tendentious (usually both), on one side and the other.

As a consequence, I was recalled to the podium on a number of occasions, by senators of both parties, to address questions they had. Their questions and statements revealed a high level of interest in the subject, but most of what they knew (or thought they knew) had been screened through the prism of their opinions of the then-current president, Donald Trump.

Trump is gone, and I did not receive an invitation this year, so I can only imagine the proceedings (assuming that there were any, given the pandemic). This is legislation that could have used some more careful vetting, however, before final passage.

Hogan may want to give more careful thought before signing HB 16, assuming he is so inclined. It will not help any ICE detainee, while hurting quite a few (regardless of what “community members who were impacted by this bill understood”). That bill will also make communities across Maryland less safe, and could seriously economically impact at least two localities — and their employees.