Howard County Council plans vote on immigrant sanctuary proposal

The Howard County Council will decide whether to call itself a "sanctuary county" on Monday.

The Howard County Council is set to vote Monday on whether to declare the county a sanctuary for undocumented immigrants, less than two weeks after President Donald J. Trump issued an order to withhold federal grants from jurisdictions that refuse to cooperate with federal immigration enforcement.

The suburban county has wrestled for weeks with the idea of formally directing police and other agencies not to ask people about their immigration status or provide information to help the federal government enforce immigration law.

The proposal, which predates Trump's inauguration, spurred two lengthy, passionate public hearings in the county. Hundreds of residents testified on both sides of the legislation.

The debate intensified after Trump suspended refugee admissions and banned visitors from seven countries with Muslim majorities. A federal judge temporarily blocked the travel ban Friday evening.

The fate of the Democratic bill is uncertain. It needs three votes on the five-member County Council to pass, and four to override County Executive Allan Kittleman's planned veto.

Two of the council's four Democrats say they will vote for it; the council's sole Republican says he will vote against. The other two council Democrats have not declared their intentions.

Councilman Calvin Ball, a Democrat who is co-sponsoring the bill, says members have been flooded with emails and phone calls from constituents on both sides of the issue.

"We've heard from thousands of constituents that this is the right thing at the right time for our county," said Ball. "I think the actions of President Trump have only come to reinforce the importance of us on the local level ensuring that we stand up for our constituents."

Councilman Greg Fox, the body's lone Republican, has dismissed the legislation as partisan political posturing. He has called it a solution in search of a problem that undermines the hard work of immigrants who have obtained citizenship legally.

Opponents of the bill have attended hearings in large numbers, carrying red "NO" signs, and have coordinated their opposition on Facebook pages.

Frank Mirabile, who chaired Trump's campaign in Howard County, said he's been heartened by the diverse coalition opposing the bill, including not only Republicans but also legal immigrants, particularly Asian-Americans.

"The amount of people that came out against this bill in numbers that represent a cross-section of ethnic and social backgrounds was incredible," he said.

Mirabile said conservative voices have long been drowned out in Howard, but debate over the legislation has shown the county has a diversity of political opinions.

"They woke up a sleeping giant," he said.

Supporters of the legislation say Trump's actions make it more important to assure county residents — legal or not — that local police won't investigate their immigration status or turn them over to federal immigration agents.

"This is about codifying protections for the most vulnerable immigrants," said the Rev. Paige Getty of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Columbia. "The actions at the federal level only reinforce how relevant it is."

Getty co-chairs People Acting Together in Howard, a coalition of faith-based groups and other organizations that supports the sanctuary bill.

"What we are seeing from our new president is exactly what he promised," Getty said.

The term "sanctuary" has no legal definition.

The Howard bill would prohibit police officers and other county employees from enforcing immigration law, helping immigration agents collect information or asking people about their nationality or immigration status, or about the status of another person.

The legislation says those prohibitions would not apply if they violated federal law.

Howard County police do not now ask individuals about their immigration status during routine stops.

County Police Chief Gary Gardner has said he opposes the bill because it would compromise the relationships that county police have with federal law enforcement.

Proponents of the bill say it's needed to make immigrants feel comfortable working with police as victims of crime or as witnesses.

Opponents say it would hamstring police in their efforts to root out illegal immigrants who engage in criminal acts. And they say the "sanctuary" label could draw an influx of undocumented immigrants to the county.

Councilwoman Jen Terrasa, another Democratic co-sponsor, said the legislation would not likely change any of the county's current practices. But she said it's important to put those policies into law, so that they can't be changed by the current or future county executive without a public process.

Ball and Terrasa said they will vote for the bill. Republican Fox said he will vote against it.

Councilwoman Mary Kay Sigaty and Councilman Jon Weinstein did not respond to interview requests.

Kittleman has vowed to veto the legislation, which he has called a "hollow political statement."

"I am not willing to jeopardize existing programs and services which benefit all Howard County residents to adopt a label that would not change any of the policies and practices that we already have in place," Kittleman said in a statement.

No matter how the vote goes, both sides say they will keep working.

Getty said the enthusiasm and momentum generated by the debate will help mobilize aid to immigrants in other ways.

"It's so clear there's so much work to do, that if the bill doesn't pass, it simply will be a reminder that there's still a lot of work to do," she said.

If the bill passes, opponents plan to lobby council members against overriding the veto.

"We hope that the bill is completely dismissed," Mirabile said.

Note: An earlier version of this story misstated when the Howard County bill was introduced. It has been corrected here.

Baltimore Sun Media Group reporter Fatimah Waseem contributed to this article.

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