In a teaser of what could be a divisive immigration debate in Howard County, residents mistakenly trickled in at the Howard County Council's monthly voting session Tuesday night to stake positions on a controversial bill that would designate the county as a sanctuary for undocumented immigrants in response to the election of President-elected Donald Trump.
The proposal, which is gaining regional and national traction, is already ginning up controversy and confusion in the county — even though it was only introduced Tuesday night. The council will officially take testimony on the bill on Jan. 17.
Council members Calvin Ball and Jen Terrasa, both Democrats, proposed the measure last week, which would limit county employees' enforcement of immigration laws, bar inquiries into citizenship and prohibit discrimination. Council members Mary Kay Sigaty and Jon Weinstein, also Democrats, haven't taken a position on the bill.
Confusion was apparent Tuesday night as residents attempted to understand whether the bill is a political designation that creates the perception the county is a sanctuary for undocumented immigrants or will lead to actual policy changes.
David Dobbs, a retired naval officer who has lived in the county for 23 years and a fourth generation German-American, stood outside the council's meeting room after the session concluded, explaining the bill to roughly a dozen people who were Chinese-Americans.
"Passing this bill will erode the citizenship, privilege and rights that we have here in America and in Howard County," he said. "Let people come in and obtain their citizenship like everybody else did."
Dobbs doubts the bill, which includes broad exemptions that emphasize state and federal law preempt the local law, will change how law enforcement operates.
"Ultimately, it's a bill about nothing," Dobbs said.
Jean Xu, who is president of the Chinese-American Parent Association, said the immigrant community is struggling to understand implications of the bill.
"People are confused. They are trying to figure out what a sanctuary county is," Xu said. "You have to think about the language barrier. How do you even explain what a sanctuary county is to someone who doesn't have a grasp of the language?"
Peng Zheng, a Clarksville resident and a Chinese-American, said she came out Tuesday night to learn more about the bill. Zheng hasn't taken a position on the legislation, but she says she's nervous.
"A lot of people feel uncomfortable. We don't know what this means and we don't fully understand the details," Zheng said.
The measure does not change the police department's ability to investigate or arrest people who violate criminal law, among other exceptions.
Councilman Greg Fox, a Republican, opposes the proposal, which he says is a solution in search of a problem and undermines the hard work of immigrants who have obtained citizenship legally.
"Even if it doesn't change how we operate, it makes Howard County a beacon for illegal immigrants. That beacon is a problem," Fox said.
Opponents of the measure gathered signatures and support Tuesday night as Fox circulated among residents to answer questions on the legislation.
The council will hear public testimony at its regular public hearing on Tuesday, Jan. 17.
Roughly 300 cities and jurisdictions throughout the county are considered "sanctuary" cities, but no legal definition about the implication of the designation on local law enforcement's day-to-day activities has been established.
The county is governed by a Democrat-majority council and a Republican county executive, Allan Kittleman. Kittleman has remained silent on the issue as the county's staff examine the legal implications of the bill, according to county spokespersons.
As a state senator in 2011, Kittleman voted against a bill that would allow undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition rates at Maryland community colleges.
In 2013, the Republican voted against changes to loosen driver licensing requirements for undocumented immigrants.
Ball and Terrasa need to secure one vote from among the three other council members in order to pass the legislation. Kittleman can exercise his veto power.
The council could vote on the legislation as early as Monday, Feb. 6. To sign-up to testify at the public hearing at 7 p.m. on Jan. 17, go to https://apps.howardcountymd.gov/otestimony. Registration is not required.