COLUMBIA, Md (WMAR) — "If you don't commit a crime, you aren't supposed to be afraid of the police," said Maria Rivas.
That's what Prince George's County resident Rivas believed, until last summer, when she said her brother Kevin was detained by federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers while driving. She said he had moved to the U.S. years before, to escape gang activity in El Salvador. He ended up being detained for six months.
"I suffered every day being a part from my family and also seeing them suffer," said Kevin, translated by a CASA staff member.
He said he spent part of his time at the Howard County Detention Center in Jessup. The county's Department of Corrections has a contract with ICE to house detainees who are criminally involved, including those convicted of crimes, charged with jailable offenses, criminal gang members and deported criminal felons who illegally reentered the U.S.
Speaking out at a town hall in Columbia Sunday night, detainees and family members said that's not always the case.
"As they were saying, most of their people have been detained because of broken headlights, speeding and none of that should turn into an arrest that leads to jail," said CASA community organizer Jorge Benitez-Perez.
A coalition of human rights groups held the event to share their stories with the hopes that more people will call for an end to the ICE contract.
"We in Howard County do not want people to be suffering and our government to be profiting from people's suffrage," said Benitez-Perez.
After an ICE enforcement in Columbia over the summer, the county's Department of Corrections Director Jack Kavanagh said: "Howard County does not and will not assist ICE in detaining people who are being charged with civil violation of federal immigration laws. Our focus will continue to be furthering the administration of justice and ensuring public safety in Howard County.”
County Executive Calvin Ball also said: "Howard County Police do not and will not assist ICE in the enforcement of civil violations of federal immigration laws. Officers in Howard County do not ask residents about their immigration status, nor do they contact ICE if they learn of a civil violation of federal immigration laws.
Howard County is fortunate to be filled with residents from all over the world. More than one-fifth of our residents were born in another country. In our schools, you can hear 82 different languages being spoken. We are the best county in the nation, not in spite of these facts, but because of them.
Our government remains dedicated to our shared values and to promoting public safety for all. Standing together, we can hold strong against forces that would tear us apart, united by our common humanity.”
Maria is pleading for the county to make the change, so what happened to her family doesn't happen to anyone else's.
"I still want to believe that they mean good but we your neighbors," said Maria. "Please make sure that when somebody gets to any detention center that that person did indeed something wrong and not just because of what he looks like."