Baltimore County hearing on bill to join immigration effort draws strong debate

A bill to enlist the Baltimore County jail into a federal immigration screening program drew divided views from residents Tuesday — the latest local take on an issue that has sparked debate in communities across the nation.

At a hearing that lasted nearly two hours — and was preceded by an opposition rally attended by County Executive Kevin Kamenetz — residents lined up to either support the bill as a way to help root out illegal immigrants who are committing crimes, or reject it as a program that sows fear among otherwise law-abiding people.

The County Council will vote next week on the measure, which would require the county jail to join a federal program known as 287(g) that trains correctional officers to carry out immigration investigations on jail detainees.

Its success is unlikely. All four Democrats on the council spoke against it, while the three Republicans have voiced support. Even it passes the council, Kamenetz has pledged to veto it.

Regardless of its fate, the bill has drawn passionate response. In Baltimore County, council meetings are often lightly attended, but Tuesday's hearing drew a crowd that packed the council chambers. Nearly 50 people testified, split between supporters and opponents.

Kathryn Jerraro of Cockeysville said the jail screening program will help make the county safer by identifying people who shouldn't be in the country. She said she's concerned about Latino gangs, and said the jail program is one way to address them.

"We want to get people who can do us harm off the streets," she said.

The libertarian group Baltimore County Campaign for Liberty organized people to attend the meeting, and volunteer Mark Baskervill delivered a box of petitions in support of the bill.

"Do you want to attract illegal immigrant criminals or not to Baltimore County?" asked Baskervill, a resident of Monkton in Harford County. "The 287(g) is clearly targeting only criminals who commit further crimes beyond just illegally immigrating here."

Several people who identified themselves as Asian-American immigrants said the bill won't affect legal, law-abiding immigrants. Peina Shr said she's easily identified as an immigrant, but she's never had any trouble with police.

"We are against illegal immigrants," she said. "I don't appreciate people who come here illegally."

Others argued 287(g) is most likely to flag people who have committed only minor offenses for possible deportation. And they said having county officials enforcing immigration law could create a chilling effect on immigrants who may fear calling police to report crimes.

"This will not create a safer community. This will create more fear," said Aixa Nunez, a 17-year-old senior at Owings Mills High School who said she is an immigrant from Honduras.

Nick Steiner, an ACLU attorney from Catonsville, suggested programs such as 287(g) are less about public safety and more about discrimination against immigrants. He said in Frederick County — one of two counties in Maryland with the program — 80 percent of jail detainees flagged for immigration violations had committed minor offenses, including traffic offenses.

"They're targeting communities of color and sending them out of the country, for what? Traffic tickets?" he said. "Let's be clear on what this bill is: It is a part of a broader political climate to target immigrants."

Opponents also questioned the cost of the program. While the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement trains correctional officers, there could be costs for filling those positions while they're away, transportation costs and increased staffing needed in the jail due to officers' additional responsibilities, they suggested.

Opponents testifying Tuesday included representatives from immigrant-rights group CASA, religious groups, the Green Party and progressive groups such as Indivisible, Together We Will and Our Revolution.

Kamenetz, a Democrat considering a run for governor, reiterated his opposition to the bill at the rally before the hearing.

"Not only is this bill unconstitutional, it is un-American," he said. "Be assured, as a real leader, I will veto it."

The bill has drawn an unusually high level of public interest. Council members, who rarely debate issues in public, spent about 45 minutes at the hearing publicly discussing their positions.

The bill is scheduled for vote at the council session at 6 p.m. Monday in Towson.

pwood@baltsun.com

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