By Rebecca Niburg #ourvoicesourmaryland Contributor
The national news has been replete with stories of children separated from their parents at the border. Reports that asylum seekers are being detained even though that practice is contrary to international law stating that persons seeking asylum status may present themselves at any point of entry and U.S. law allows them a full year to do so. There are other reports that parents have been forced to give up the rights to their children under duress or as a result of misunderstandings due to language barriers or their illiteracy. All reports indicate mass confusion as to the implementation of new policies and procedures. But Maryland is not a border state so how can we help? And why has our Governor not denounced what is happening and stood for our state’s values by denouncing the separations?
The problems from the border have literally come to Maryland in the form of transportation and detention of parents who arrived with their children. Maryland has three detention centers that have an arrangement with ICE (Immigration and Custom Enforcement) located in Frederick (starting in 2007), Worcester (starting in 2000), and Howard (starting in the mid 1990s) Counties. Outside of official detention facilities, other facilities within the state are being used to house those seeking to immigrate to the United States, including a facility in Glen Burnie (starting in 2016). Any children who crossed the border cannot be housed in these facilities because they are otherwise used for adults serving criminal sentences.
Each County came to house ICE detainees through their own separate application and agreement to rent the use of part of their facilities by ICE. These agreements provide for an influx of cash and resources as the local facilities are essentially rented for use by the federal government. Worcester County, for one, has earned two thirds of its annual operating cost through its partnership with ICE with undocumented immigrants on ICE detainees who make up just under half of its overall population. The facilities do not use federal employees during daily operations, but instead use the local personnel and schedules though some federal monitoring and oversight is provided.
Unless specifically negotiated, the local facilities do not have control over who is detained or how the location of detention is chosen. Recently, the Howard County Executive’s office released a letter stating that only those persons previously convicted of a crime or who were gang members were housed at the ICE facility in Jessup. It is unclear whether Howard County entered into a unique agreement with ICE to limit those persons detained in the County, and it is unfortunate that the agreement has not been released for inspection to the public to be able to verify the claim and potentially ask for a modification in the terms of the agreement.
So with these arrangements in place, how do we effectively protect the rights of the parents brought from the border to Maryland?
Some activists and groups have protested outside of these facilities, demanding that they be closed and that people who are being held after separation from their children at the border be released or held elsewhere. There is an inherent tension, however, about whether closing these facilities would actually serve the intending immigrants’ best interests. Immigration law is a federal practice, which means that implementation and interpretation varies by the federal circuit in which the court is located. So, an immigrant in Maryland has a greater chance of being granted relief in immigration court than if they go to court in Texas (to give one example).
In addition, some facilities may be more susceptible to pressure to close. The Howard County facility has a smaller reliance on federal funds than Worcester County which has stated that it may not be able to keep its detention facility open without federal funds. Frederick County officials have stated that the money earned from the federal government exceeds the cost of housing the detainees, so canceling the contract could have a detrimental effect on the services available to County residents through a reduction in the budget. There are additional concerns with closing the facility in Howard County as it is the most centrally located, which allows for easier family and legal representative visits.
What is missing, however, is transparency and support. Even though closing the facilities may seem to be the obvious, knee-jerk reaction, that only shunts the problem off on states with different views that may not be able or willing to assist detainees. First, we as citizens have a right to know what these contracts with ICE say – What is the scope? What is the oversight? What is the actual payment being made and effect on overall County finances? And can we negotiate with ICE to provide different accommodations, rules, or assistance concerning those being held? Second, we can support detainees through providing funding for legal representation to be released sooner or to receive benefits that they may not be aware or capable of obtaining on their own. And, we can provide other comfort to them whether it be through providing company, access to technology so they can reach out to family, or entertainment such as books in their native language.
Although far from the southern border, Maryland has had the chaos and uncertainty imported to it through agreements to house detainees for ICE. And although the decision to house ICE detainees is up to the individual Counties, the Governor has been notably silent on his overall position regarding federal immigration policy and whether Maryland as a state should be supporting the family separation happening at the Southern border by housing those affected. We have the opportunity now to demonstrate to all the other states what compassion and common sense policy making can look like to uphold our values of humanity.
The views expressed here are the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of Our Maryland or Our Maryland Education Fund.