In Annapolis last year, immigrant advocacy groups hailed the passage of the Dignity Not Detention Act – a measure that would end private detention in local Maryland jails by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
Proponents of the bill said its overall impact would be positive, despite warnings by some that ICE would simply ship people to facilities far from families and lawyers.
That’s precisely what happened to AJ, who came to the U.S. from Sierra Leone as a child, has a green card and has lived in the U.S. lawfully, residing in Baltimore City and, most recently, in Howard County.
When the ICE agents showed up last December at his home in Columbia, it was filled with Christmas presents for his three children.
He had just started a new mobile mechanic business, he was caring for his aging mother, driving her to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore for cancer treatments.
Successfully serving out probation for a drug charge he’d pleaded guilty to six months earlier, AJ was going to counseling, doing everything he thought he was supposed to.
He couldn’t believe the cars parked outside his house were there to detain him.
“I’m like, what’s going on? Why am I being pulled over? I’m sure that my driver’s license, registration, everything is straight,” recalled AJ, whose attorney requested he only use his initials to preserve confidentiality.
“Then they put cuffs on my wrists and then they put chains on my ankles and then put me in the van” – “AJ,” a Maryland man held at an ICE facility in Pennsylvania.
“Then they put cuffs on my wrists and then they put chains on my ankles and then put me in the van,” he said, in a Zoom call with The Brew.
After processing him in their downtown Baltimore office, ICE officials told AJ there was no bed space in any Maryland facility and that they would be taking him out of state.
Like many other Maryland resident detainees, he is now being held at an ICE detention facility in central Pennsylvania’s rural Moshannon Valley, close to a four hour drive from the Baltimore area.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
With last year’s passage of HB 0016, which mirrored legislation similar to Dignity Not Detention (DND) in other states, lawmakers in Annapolis ended local jurisdictions’ ability to contract with ICE.
The law required ICE to shut down its operations in four detention facilities in Maryland by no later than October 2022.
ICE began transferring detainees and phasing out operations in the Maryland facilities soon after DND passed.
Immigrant advocates, including CASA, had urged Maryland to pass the measure, saying it would send an important message to the federal government.
They hoped that the closures would prompt ICE to release most Maryland resident detainees, as well as significantly reduce enforcement operations in the state.
They hoped the closures would prompt ICE to release most detainees, and significantly reduce enforcement operations in Maryland.
But many immigration attorneys say that ICE is instead transferring detainees to other facilities, and that new detainees immediately get taken out of state. For longtime Maryland residents like AJ, the practice is further separating them from friends, family and quality legal counsel.
AJ said he pleaded guilty to drug charges in April 2021 because the attorney representing him at the time advised him to do so, telling him at most he’d have to spend a couple years on probation.
But the attorney did not advise him of any potential immigration consequences of taking that deal, AJ said, in his interview with The Brew.
He never thought that one mistake could put him at risk of getting sent to a country he’s only known as a boy. He’d come a long way since his childhood in war-torn Sierra Leone where gunfire was a common nighttime soundtrack.
Recalling the judge who approved his plea, he said he’d felt grateful.
“I’m thinking that, okay, I’m being granted, you know, an opportunity to do good, stay clean,” he said. “Which I was trying my best to do, you know? And then out of nowhere I’m just being snatched up by somebody else that don’t even have to do with that judge.”
DND legislation was the latest strategy of a growing progressive movement across the nation to urge state lawmakers to end collaboration with ICE.
But many immigration lawyers who work directly with detainees say these kinds of laws have made their jobs only harder.
“Direct representation of folks who are detained is already difficult enough,” said Adam Crandell, a Baltimore area immigration attorney who has represented hundreds of immigrant detainees throughout his career.
“The docket goes a lot faster, so there’s a lot more work done in a short amount of time requiring communication, requiring the ability to meet and speak with the person on a frequent basis, get documents signed, things like that,” Crandell explained.
Now many of his clients are ending up in the Moshannon Valley Correctional Center near State College, Pennsylvania – a nearly 1,900-bed former federal prison repurposed for use as an ICE detention center and run by The GEO Group.
It’s one of 106 detention centers privately owned and operated throughout the world by Florida-based GEO. According to the ACLU, “it’s the largest immigration detention facility in the Northeast, and is likely to become the hub of immigration detention in the region.”
“What’s really scary is when clients get transferred to Georgia, to Louisiana, to circuits where their law is really horrific” – CAIR attorney Emily Johanson.
Emily Johanson, an attorney with Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights Coalition (CAIR) who now represents AJ, says ICE is transferring some Maryland detainees even further away.
“ICE, as a federal agency, can just send your clients to any location,” Johanson said. “What’s really scary is when clients get transferred to Georgia, to Louisiana, to circuits where their law is really horrific and give a way lower chance that our clients will be able to stay in this country.”
Though immigration law is federal, different courts hold different precedents. In other words, winning asylum in Baltimore’s court may be easier than in another city. Certain criminal convictions could make someone deportable in one court, but not another.
“Basically everything that I’ve been telling clients for the past decade goes completely out the window ” – attorney Adam Crandell.
Baltimore immigration court lies within the 4th federal circuit, one that many attorneys and advocates claim holds relatively immigrant-friendly precedent on many issues.
Crandell said it remains unclear where the cases of transferred detainees will be docketed, with some Moshannon Valley detainees going to 3rd circuit Pennsylvania courts and others to the 6th circuit Cleveland court. Often, a change in venue means his client will have a tougher chance winning their case.
The new uncertainty, he said, “adds just the layers and layers of difficulty.”
“Basically everything that I’ve been telling clients for the past decade based on 4th Circuit precedent goes completely out the window.”
Further From Family
Lawyers said they have a tougher time handling these cases- not just because they are so far from their clients, but also because the families are not nearby their loved ones.
“Just being able to be around family and have that support is crucial in an immigration case – for collecting evidence, for getting perspectives for various forms of relief,” said Austin Rose, another attorney at CAIR.
In multiple ways, the distance has challenged AJ and his family.
His girlfriend and youngest daughter were able to make the four-hour drive to see him once, but he says that the visit got cut short when everyone on his cell block was required to report for counting.
AJ got to see them for 20 minutes before they drove the four hours back to Maryland.
AJ got to see his family for 20 minutes before they drove the four hours back to Maryland.
AJ’s lawyers are hoping to get him released so he can return home to them. He’s applying for post-conviction relief on the grounds of not knowing the potential immigration consequence to his guilty plea.
Rose acknowledged AJ’s legal strategy faces challenges, including two recent Supreme Court rulings that could make it even more difficult for detained immigrants to get released on a bond. But he feels strongly that what happened to AJ was wrong.
“He was released by the criminal system that determined that it was safe, that it was in everyone’s best interest, and that he was clearly doing great on the outside,” Rose said.
“And then Immigration comes and says, ‘we know better than the criminal system, we know better and we say he’s dangerous,’” he said. AJ “was thriving, and then it was taken away from him.”
“We knew the risk”
In an emailed statement, a spokesperson said ICE “does not comment on local or state legislation.”
“ICE is committed to focusing its civil immigration enforcement priorities on the apprehension and removal of non-citizens who pose a threat to national security, public safety and border security,” the statement continued.
“ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) will continue to carry out enforcement and other operations in accordance with the agency’s mission.”
Delegate Vaughn Stewart (D, Mont), the main sponsor of Dignity Not Detention, refers to ICE as a “terrorist organization.”
He told The Brew that stakeholders knew the risk of ICE transferring detainees to other states when crafting the legislation.
“We didn’t pursue it just because we thought it seemed good or it felt good,” Stewart said. “We thought the bill would do more good than harm and we think that’s what’s bearing out.”
“We thought the bill would do more good than harm and we think that’s what’s bearing out” – Del. Vaughn Stewart.
Himedes Chicas, an immigration attorney based in Wheaton, has seen some good in the wake of DND. He says that he has seen ICE exercise discretion and release some Maryland residents instead of transferring them, and that, in his eyes, enforcement in the state seemed to have relaxed a bit.
“I have personally seen some individuals that would have absolutely been detained, say last year, but because of a limited, lack of space, they were released,” he said.
“We pushed this because our members – the ones actually affected by this, the ones at risk – said, ‘we have to do this,’” said Nick Katz, legal director for CASA. “The message isn’t that this should have been done differently here in Maryland, but that this needs to be done everywhere.”
Katz emphasizes that registered CASA members – immigrants themselves, many of whom are undocumented – supported the push for the bill while also recognizing its limitations and the potential fallout.
The law does not, and cannot, require ICE to release all detainees in the state. It also cannot prevent ICE from making arrests within the state.
Pushing the Biden Administration
Attorney Crandell says that he and many others saw the writing on the wall while DND was still being crafted.
“We said, as loud as we could, ICE is going to continue to detain non citizen residents of the state of Maryland. They’re just going to detain them farther away from their lawyers, from their families, from the resources, and frankly from the good law…that we have here in Maryland,” he told The Brew.
Delegate Stewart and Katz both emphasize the importance of pushing Washington to “make good” on President Biden’s campaign promises of comprehensive immigration reform.
“We have to pressure the Biden administration to do the right thing – they need to do more to stand up to immigration detention,” said Stewart.
Stewart also thinks that Maryland lawmakers can do more to ensure that all state residents who have to go before an immigration judge do so with an attorney. HB 114, presented at this year’s General Assembly, would have created a fund for doing just that – like a similar bill the year before – but it didn’t survive committee hearings.
Katz says that advocates wanted lawmakers to take DND reforms further, by requiring local police departments to end their 287(g) agreements, controversial programs that recruit and train local police officers to assist ICE in carrying out removal operations.
Frederick, Cecil and Harford County police departments still operate with such agreements.
Loose laws and Loss
In 2020, the most recent year with publicly available data, ICE’s Baltimore office made 902 arrests. The Washington, D.C., office made 2,885.
Since then, the Biden administration has issued new enforcement guidelines, stating that ICE will only focus on those who pose risks to national security, public safety and border security.
Attorney Rose notes that ongoing federal litigation might roll back Biden’s relaxation of enforcement. His colleague Emily Johanson adds that ICE’s actions on the ground do not always reflect the stated priorities of the agency’s decision makers.
“The rank and file adherence to the goals of the administration . . . isn’t always what we would want,” said Johanson, saying enforcement priorities were intentionally crafted loosely.
In the six months since his arrest, he’s had valuables stolen from his apartment, and his car has been towed to an unknown location
The changes in enforcement priorities haven’t meant much for AJ, who has spent all of 2022 in the Moshannon Valley separated from his mother, girlfriend and three kids without the opportunity for a bond.
He says that since his arrest, he’s had valuables stolen from his apartment after a break in, and his car has been towed away to an unknown location.
“So just being in here six months, just the stuff that I’ve already lost,” he said, pausing to find the words. “Even though you are in here, your mind is always out, like trying to get out of here.”
– Daniel Zawodny is a Baltimore-based paralegal and freelance journalist who reports on immigration law and immigration issues. His writing has appeared in Catholic Review and NACLA (North American Congress on Latin America) as well as in The Brew.