Baltimore advocates fear increased enforcement of undocumented immigration

Immigration advocates in Baltimore area are watching for increased enforcement activity.

Advocates for immigrants say they are tracking reports of federal agents stopping and detaining undocumented immigrants in the Baltimore area amid an enforcement crackdown elsewhere in the country.

While the courts have halted Republican President Donald J. Trump's order to block visitors from seven predominantly Muslim countries, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement launched a series of "targeted enforcement operations" last week in cities across the country, including New York, Chicago, Atlanta and Los Angeles.

ICE officials say Maryland wasn't part of those operations, but agents are working continually to apprehend foreign nationals eligible for deportation.

Elizabeth Alex, regional director of the immigrant advocacy group CASA of Baltimore, said immigrants — including those who are living in the country illegally — are "very afraid."

"They say, 'I am scared every day when I go to work that I won't be able to come back,'" she said. "'If I was deported, I don't know what I would do with my children.'"

Alex said CASA lawyers are researching allegations that undocumented immigrants were detained by federal officials after leaving area courthouses or after being stopped for minor traffic offenses.

Valerie Twanmoh, who runs Catholic Charities' Esperanza Center in Fells Point, said an increasing number of undocumented immigrants from across the region are coming to the center for help.

They are looking for help sorting through the confusion and anxiety since Trump's election in November and his recent executive orders, Twanmoh said.

The center saw more than 15,000 people from about 100 countries last year. Services include helping immigrants designate a power of attorney, obtain a passport for U.S.-born children and more.

"We have seen a significant increase, not only in the number of clients coming in for service, but also in the fear and stress level," Twanmoh said. "People are afraid they are going to be separated from their families, or that they won't have a means to provide for their family, that they will be sent back to countries where they risk, if not serious injury, death."

CASA and the Council on American-Islamic Relations condemned ICE on Tuesday for two alleged actions last week in Highlandtown. The groups say agents targeted "Latino individuals who were selected based on their appearance."

"Maryland's Muslim communities stand in solidarity with our Latino brothers and sisters and people of all backgrounds who are being targeted with discriminatory, unconstitutional measures," said Zainab Chaudry, CAIR's outreach manager.

An ICE spokeswoman said the agency "regularly conducts targeted enforcement operations dedicated to apprehending deportable foreign nationals."

"All enforcement activities are conducted with the same level of professionalism and respect that ICE officers exhibit every day," spokeswoman Sarah Rodriguez said in a statement. "The focus of these operations is no different than the routine, targeted arrests carried out by ICE's Fugitive Operations Teams on a daily basis."

Some say the concerns are overblown.

Brad Botwin, director of the anti-illegal immigration group Help Save Maryland, accused CASA of spreading "panic in the illegal alien community" instead of "allowing ICE to do their job — detaining, arresting and deporting illegal aliens."

Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly said Monday that the raids targeted "public safety threats" and "convicted criminal aliens and gang members."

He also said that agents went after "individuals who have violated our nation's immigration laws," which could include people not convicted of violent crimes.

Kelly said agents in large cities, including Los Angeles and New York, arrested more than 680 people. About 75 percent of them had criminal records.

"ICE conducts these kind of targeted enforcement operations regularly and has for many years," Kelly said in a statement.

ICE conducted similar raids under the Obama administration. Stepped-up enforcement in Georgia, Texas and North Carolina in early 2016 sparked concern among undocumented immigrants in Maryland.

Trump, asked Monday about his stalled temporary ban on travel, discussed targeting people who were in the country illegally.

"We're actually taking people that are criminals, very, very hardened criminals in some cases with a tremendous track record of abuse and problems and we're getting them out and that's what I said I would do," he said. "I said at the beginning, we are going to get the bad ones."

In addition to the travel ban, the president has signed orders to build a wall on the Southwest border with Mexico and to hire more agents to conduct deportations. He also wants to take federal funding away from so-called "sanctuary cities."

He has said the orders will make Americans safer.

A federal judge stayed the travel ban on visitors from the Muslim countries, and a federal appeals court upheld the stay last week.

Some local and state officials have looked to protect foreign-born residents.

Democratic members of the General Assembly are pushing for a law that would curtail state and local cooperation with federal immigration authorities.

Their legislation would forbid police from detaining immigrants at the request of ICE. It would also bar law enforcement from providing nonpublic information about undocumented immigrants, including the timing of an immigrant's release from jail or a home address, that could be used by federal authorities to locate people. Providing such information is currently voluntary.

The legislation would prohibit local law enforcement from becoming deputized to enforce federal immigration law. Two Maryland counties — Frederick and Harford — have signed such agreements with the federal government under an ICE program known as 287(g).

Similar legislation was introduced in 2014. It did not pass.

The Annapolis city council approved a bill Monday aimed at protecting foreign-born residents from discrimination by city officials.

Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh recently reaffirmed the city's policy barring city police from asking people about their immigration status.

The Howard County Council approved a bill last week to limit county employees' involvement in enforcing federal immigration law and to declare the county a safe place for undocumented immigrants. County Executive Allan Kittleman vetoed the measure.

CASA helped organize a meeting in Baltimore County on Sunday that drew more than 60 people — including immigrant college students, undocumented mothers with children and a local therapist who wanted to help.

Elise Armacost, a county police spokeswoman, said officers contact federal immigration officials "only when people who have been arrested for a crime are found to be here illegally."

County Executive Kevin Kamenetz said in a statement that "while Baltimore County's policy is very clear, I am keeping all options open."

Nadine Wettstein runs the Maryland Office of the Public Defender's immigration program. She said the office is closely monitoring cases involving immigrants arrested at area courthouses.

Wettstein said ICE arrests at courthouses are disruptive and discourage immigrants from going to court or reporting crimes to police.

A 29-year-old man was apprehended by ICE on Feb. 3 at a Howard County courthouse, according to his attorney, Ian Anthony.

The man, who faced a second-degree assault charge, was in court for a hearing that was postponed.

The man moved from Colombia about three years ago with his wife and two young children on a student visa, Anthony said. His visa expired late last year.

Anthony said the ICE agent watched the court proceeding, followed them outside and took the man into custody once they were about 500 feet from the courthouse.

"My client was very surprised and my client's mother was distraught," Anthony said. "He hadn't been found guilty of anything. They put him in a back of a van and drove off."

David Simon, creator of HBO's "The Wire," hosted a fundraising protest against Trump's immigration ban at Beth Am Synagogue on Monday night. He said he would match up to $100,000 in donations to benefit groups and organizations aiding immigrants and refugees.

Around 900 people, including city Health Commissioner Dr. Leana Wen and activist and educator DeRay Mckesson, attended the sold-out event. By 9 p.m., around $50,000 had been raised online.

Concern about similar alleged incidents prompted a Sunday afternoon protest in Southeast Baltimore, where protesters marched through the streets in support of local immigrants.

Passing through Highlandtown and the neighborhoods surrounding Patterson Park, the crowds shouted, "No hate, no fear, immigrants are welcome here!"

At nearby Patterson High School, Margot Harris, head of the English as a Second Language program, said she has asked teachers "to keep their eyes and ears open" for immigration-related issues among students.

"But in trying to maintain a sense of calm, I've asked teachers to just observe and not bring it up unless the kids are talking about it," Harris said. "We just reiterate for the kids that we're here for them."

The school has nearly 500 immigrant students. Harris said there's been anxiety over issues, including Trump's travel ban, but the students "seem to be very resilient."

"They seem to be functioning normally given the circumstances," she said.

Baltimore Sun reporters Brittany Britto, John Fritze and Erin Cox contributed to this article.

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