New Bills Could Stop Private Prisons From Cutting Deals With ICE

Starting in January 2017, when Donald Trump expanded his strict policy against immigrants, private prison societies stormed into what they consider to be an open market. Many signed contracts either directly with ICE or with local and state governments that ICE had signed new holding facilities for undocumented immigrants. State after state requests for proposals have been sent out to companies like the Immigration Centers of America (ICA) for offers to build new privately run detention centers for immigrants.

In response, a handful of states – California, Washington, and Illinois in particular – passed laws designed to contain private prisons and make it difficult for local governments in their jurisdictions to sign contracts with the nonprofits that operate those prisons. Illinois passed law in 2019 banning local governments from contracting directly with ICE or private prison companies. That same year, Washington lawmakers banned state and local governments from signing private prison contracts.

In California, a series of bills that began in 2017 and evolved during the Trump presidency made it increasingly difficult for ICE and private prison societies to operate facilities in the state. The private companies tried to circumvent the legislation by signing “emergency contracts” with ICE that bypassed normal legal processes. However, lawmakers responded by passing a collective bill that prevented private companies from running any Prison – immigration-related or otherwise – in California. Washington lawmakers are currently considering a similarly comprehensive bill.

California and Washington’s assertive stance towards private prisons was an integral part of the West Coast’s efforts to defeat Trump in his endless war against immigrants in the United States. But now, with a new administration in power, the legislative dynamic against ICE is not just coming from the West Coast, but Maryland as well. Legislators there, concerned that the ICA is looking to expand into the state, are looking to court this month to delegitimize ICE operations in Maryland and the operations of the companies that do ICE’s dirty work.

On March 18, 86 of the state’s 141 delegates – enough to override a likely veto by Republican Governor Hogan – voted for the Dignity Not Detention Act. Legislation prohibits counties from entering into immigration enforcement contracts with ICE or private prison companies, and will kick off an exit from the state’s three existing ICE facilities by October 2022. The Senate Chairs will schedule a vote on the pre-session bill ends in mid-April, and they are confident they also have enough votes to override a Hogan veto if necessary. There is one caveat with that confidence, however: if the veto comes after the session is over, the override would have to wait until next January, and proponents fear some senators may get cold feet during an election year.

Whether or not the bill ultimately becomes law, efforts to reformulate ICE as a rogue outfit that reputable state and local governments should avoid has already transformed Maryland’s political discourse. “It’s pretty significant,” says Billing Sponsor Delegate Vaughn Stewart, who represents a Montgomery County district where 42 percent of the population are immigrants. “The less space you have for ICE, the less incentive you have to pick up people.”

Stewart is referring to the story of a voter arrested for cutting down a tree in his uncle’s yard without permission. He was taken to an ICE detention center after arrest officers did a background check and determined that he had an ICE warrant pending against him. He ended up imprisoned there for six months. “Unless districts and private prison societies benefit from imprisoning immigrants, there aren’t so many incentives to pick someone up for something like cutting down trees.” Instead, they send immigrants home with an anklet instead of separating them from their families and arresting them, ”explains Stewart.

The Montgomery County delegate believes that while the Biden administration has in many cases reversed Trump-era policies and priorities, it still needs to crackdown on ICE. Over the years, he says, it has grown into a “corrupt agency” that prides itself on accepting immigrants for “stupid reasons.”

“This bill represents a fundamental change in how states approach ICE,” said Stewart. “It could have a ripple effect if this is the new norm that state Democrats adhere to.”

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