County Executive Steuart Pittman announced Thursday a formal end to the county’s 287(g) program, a program that had corrections officials checking inmates in county jails for immigration violations.
The announcement was widely expected after the program was suspended Dec. 4. But in a surprise move, Pittman said he would continue the county’s ICE detainee contract — a separate program from 287(g) at Ordnance Road Correctional Center — for humanitarian reasons and use some revenue from the program to pay for legal aid.
Detention Facilities Superintendent Terry Kokolis told staff to stop screening immigrants Dec. 4, one day after Pittman’s inauguration speech. The 287(g) program allows detention center officers to screen inmates and send immigration status information to U.S. Immigration and Customs and Enforcement. ICE removed its computers shortly after that decision.
The detainment deal with ICE pays the county in exchange of holding up to 130 detainees at the correctional center in Glen Burnie. ICE pays $118 a day per detainee with a guaranteed $1.7 million.
The money is placed into the county general fund, and some of it will be used to pay for detainee legal representation in immigration hearings.
Pittman did not know how much it will cost to pay for that representation. Since immigration violations are a civil offense, legal representation is not guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution.
Ending the 287(g) program does not mean violent offenders will go onto the streets if they still must serve jail sentences in Maryland, and the federal government still has the opportunity and resources to deport them, Pittman said.
“We will continue to cooperate with ICE,” Pittman said. “I will be disappointed if the federal government decides to crack down on the county for this decision.”
While Pittman promised to end 287(g), he never committed to ending the ICE detainee program at Ordnance Road Correctional Center. He toured the center Wednesday.
Those immigrants are being treated humanely and they would be sent elsewhere, so the county is opting to keep them here, for the time being, Pittman said.
Kokolis, who announced his retirement last week, joined Pittman at the news conference. The county executive said he did not ask Kokolis to leave.
Ending the 287(g) program doesn’t bar ICE from filing detainers as ICE still has the authority and capacity to track immigrant offenders and file detainers, Kokolis said.
“The first misnomer of the 287(g) program is that anybody is brought to a local facility for the sole purpose of immigration violations,” Kokolis said. “That is not the case. Anybody who is brought into a local facility is always charged under local criminal code.”
The 287(g) program has been a wedge issue in political debates — supporters argue it helps uncover and deport criminals. Critics say it leads to the deportation of immigrants with minor offenses and creates distrust between immigrants and law enforcement.
The police department does everything it can to make sure people know police officers aren’t going to deport them and build trust, Police Chief Altomare said.
“That trust starts in home countries and countries of origin when the police show up and people disappear,” said Altomare, who joined Pittman and the news conference. “If someone needs help from this police department, they are going to get it.”
The county’s 287(g) program screened 193 throughout its lifespan. Of those screened, 69 received ICE detainers. About half of them were incarcerated for violent offenses. The other half were charged with non-violent crimes like driving without a license and DUIs.
County Councilman Nathan Volke, R-Pasadena, said he was disappointed in the county decision to end the 287(g) program. He also said he didn’t support the county executive’s plan to pay for legal representation because U.S. citizens don’t receive money to pay for civil legal representation. The Council has final say on budget expenditures.
“There weren’t allegations of abuse, so why end it?” Volke said. “It was another tool in the toolbox (for immigration enforcement).”
A county without a 287(g) program does not mean violent immigrants subject to deportation are released into the community. The 287(g) program was started in the 90s as a tool to make immigration enforcement more proactive. Criminals charged with crimes still have to serve their time to the state whether the area has a 287(g) program, and ICE still has the authority to carry out immigration enforcement.
ICE has a program called the “Criminal Alien Program” allowing ICE officers to use arrest and book-in data to find immigrants charged with crimes. That program leverages fingerprint databases and other information to track those immigrants.
Opponents to the 287(g) program argue it erodes trust between law enforcement and immigrant communities. They report fewer crimes for fear of deportation.
“Full-time ICE agents comb through records and start deportation proceedings against people with criminal histories or charges, whether or not a county has a 287(g) agreement,” Maureen Sweeny wrote in a letter to the editor. Sweeny is the director of the University of Maryland Immigration Clinic at the School of Law.
With Pittman’s removal from the 287(g) program, there are now two in Maryland. The Harford and Frederick County Sheriff’s Office both have agreements with ICE.
The Harford County sheriff sent Pittman a letter before his Thursday announcement. He also invited the Anne Arundel County Council to Harford to see its 287(g) program in action and dispel “myths” surrounding the program.
“The program allows us to identify those individuals who have committed crimes within Harford County and who are in this country illegally for possible deportation, once they fulfill their obligation to the state of Maryland,” wrote Jeffrey Gahler, Harford County sheriff.
“This program has nothing to do with law enforcement operations and this is another fact that is too often ignored in order to sell a false narrative.”
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