Officials at the Howard County Detention Center say that they do not detain people solely on the basis of immigration status, but my family’s experience says otherwise. It’s time to end ICE detention in Howard County, and all over Maryland.
Two summers ago on an early morning in June, my youngest brother, Kevin, was stopped by ICE on his way to work. He was in the car with his brother, Douglas, who ICE was pursuing for an immigration violation. Kevin was undocumented and with guns drawn, ICE dragged my brothers away. Their car was left in the middle of the road with the keys still in the ignition, and it was not until the next day that I was told that my brother had been detained.
That stop landed my brothers behind bars in Frederick,and then Howard County jail for Kevin.Both are jails where they detain immigrants on behalf of ICE. Kevin was in detention for a grueling six months where he experienced some of the worst experiences one can imagine. He has shared many times, in his own advocacy, his devastating accounts of walking barefoot in detention after being denied requests for new shoes,going days without toilet paper, and weeks without seeing a medic after making a request. I remember the heartache of barely being able to communicate with my brother because of all of the language and technology barriers in the detention centers. It was among one of the hardest moments my family has faced.
Eventually, in November that same year, Kevin was released when he won his immigration case. He was granted a ‘withholding of removal’ order,which gives him the right to stay in the U.S. indefinitely. He received this because back in our home country, El Salvador, our town was controlled and terrorized by gang members. Kevin had no choice but to flee here to the United States because his life was at risk. He came here seeking refuge - not knowing how ICE’s detainment and deportation agenda would affect him.Now that a judge has granted him the status to stay in the United States legally, he works full time and is in the process of buying a home.
Did my little brother deserve to be detained for six months simply for being an immigrant? No, he didn’t.
I am grateful every day that Kevin was able to get a lawyer to fight for the relief that he deserved. We were lucky that we were able to get support from a non-profit, but that’s not the case for most families. Immigrants in detention who are facing deportation do not have a right to a lawyer and most can not afford it. I am deeply concerned that there are other immigrants behind bars in Maryland that are detained for no reason and don’t have the resources to fight their case. I’m even more concerned that immigrants like Kevin are suffering the same horrors that he faced while detained, which I can only imagine is much worse during the pandemic.
While I was encouraged to see people detained in the Frederick detention center released to their homes, I was heartbroken to see the news that our efforts to shut down the Howard detention center, one of the places my brother was detained, had been voted down. I’m even
more heartbroken and frankly, terrified to hear the news that Dorchester County is working with ICE to open a new detention center there as well.
This must end. ICE must stop unfairly arresting and detaining immigrants. And our state and local government must stop helping them to do it. I pray that our state leaders will take action by passing the Trust Act (SB88/HB304) and the Dignity Not Detention Act (SB478/HB16) - two important bills introduced by Maryland lawmakers this year. These bills are written to stop police from asking about immigration status, keeping counties like Howard from partnering with ICE to detain immigrants, and ensure ICE can’t build any private detention centers here in Maryland.
I look forward to fighting for these bills on behalf of my brother, and on behalf of my whole community. Despite the inhumane treatment we’ve endured,immigrants are in fact human beings - and we deserve dignity. Not detention.
Maria Rivas is a resident of Prince George’s County and a member of CASA, the Mid-Atlantic largest immigrant rights organization.