From January 2017 onward, as Donald Trump expanded his harsh anti-immigrant policies, private prison companies rushed into what they saw as an open market. Many signed contracts either directly with ICE or with local and state governments that ICE had contracted with for new holding facilities for undocumented immigrants. In state after state, requests for proposals went out, soliciting bids from companies such as Immigration Centers of America (ICA) to build new privately run immigration detention sites.
In response, a handful of states—California, Washington, and Illinois in particular—passed legislation designed to rein in private prisons and make it harder for local governments in their jurisdictions to sign contracts with the for-profit companies that run these prisons. Illinois passed a bill in 2019 prohibiting local governments from entering into contracts directly with ICE or with private prison companies. That same year, legislators in Washington barred state and local governments from signing private prison contracts.
In California, a series of bills, starting in 2017 and evolving throughout the Trump presidency, made it progressively harder for ICE and private prison companies to operate facilities in the state. The private companies tried to do an end run around the legislation by signing “emergency contracts” with ICE that bypassed the normal legal processes, but legislators responded by passing a catch-all law preventing private companies from running any prison—immigration-related or otherwise—in California. Lawmakers in Washington are now considering a similarly comprehensive bill.
California and Washington’s assertive stance against private prisons came to be a signature part of the West Coast’s efforts to take on Trump in his endless war against immigrants in the United States. But now, with a new administration in power, legislative momentum against ICE is coming not only from the West Coast but also from Maryland. Legislators there, worried that ICA wants to expand into the state, are this month engaged in a full-court effort 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 in favor of the Dignity Not Detention Act. The legislation bars counties from entering into contracts for immigration enforcement with ICE or with private prison companies, and sets in motion a phase-out of the three existing ICE facilities in the state by October of 2022. Senate leaders are going to schedule a vote on the bill before the session ends in mid-April, and they are confident that they also have enough votes to override a Hogan veto if the need arises. However, this confidence has a caveat attached: If the veto comes after the session ends, the override would have to wait until next January, and proponents worry that some senators might end up getting cold feet during an election year.
Whether or not the bill ultimately becomes law, the efforts to recast ICE as a rogue outfit that respectable state and local governments should steer clear of has already changed the political discourse in Maryland. “It’s pretty significant,” says bill sponsor Delegate Vaughn Stewart, who represents a Montgomery County district where 42 percent of the residents are immigrants. “The less bed space you have for ICE, you have much less of an incentive to pick people up.”
Stewart references the story of a constituent who was arrested for cutting down a tree in his uncle’s yard without a permit. He was carted off to an ICE detention facility once the arresting officers ran a background check and realized he had an outstanding ICE warrant against him. He ultimately spent six months locked up there. “When counties and private prison companies aren’t profiting from immigrant detention, there isn’t as much of an incentive to pick up someone for something like tree-cutting. Instead, they’ll send immigrants home with an ankle bracelet rather than separating them from families and detaining them,” Stewart explains.
The Montgomery County delegate believes that, even though the Biden administration has in many instances performed U-turns away from Trump-era policies and priorities, there’s still a need to push back against ICE. Over the years, he says, it has morphed into a “depraved agency” that takes pride in picking immigrants up for “dumb reasons.”
“This bill represents a sea change in how states are approaching ICE,” says Stewart. “It could start triggering a domino effect where this is the new norm that Democrats are being held to in states.”