Immigration debate continues in Howard during second day of testimony

Deep divides continued to surface Wednesday night as residents delivered impassioned testimony before the Howard County Council on a proposed bill that would label the county a "sanctuary" for undocumented immigrants.

On the first night of the hearing, more than 500 people packed the meeting room Tuesday night and more than 270 people signed up to testify, a turnout that pushed the meeting to Wednesday after the Council heard more than six hours of testimony that continued past 2 a.m.

Proposed by Democratic Council members Calvin Ball and Jen Terrasa, the bill would codify existing county practices regarding how county employees, including local law enforcement, interact with undocumented immigrants. If passed, state and federal laws and policies would trump the designation.

On Wednesday, the debate between opponents — who wore red and held large "No CB-9" signs — and proponents, — who wore a motley collection of white, green and other colors and held an assortment of signs — was emblematic of the national debate over immigration enforcement.

Fear of the unknown surfaced on both ends during the hearings on Tuesday and Wednesday.

"There has been so much hurt and anger on all sides," said Columbia resident Tonya Tiffany, who is opposed to the bill.

By Wednesday night, the Council had heard nearly nine hours of testimony on the controversial bill over two days.

Of the 271 people who signed up to testify over the two days, 105 supported and 83 opposed the bill, according to Council staff. The remaining were undeclared.

Supporters said the bill was a principled stand for undocumented immigrants, whom they described as mainstays of the local economy, and said it gave minorities living in increased fear of the presidency of Donald Trump piece of mind.

"Do what is right for the voiceless," said Sam Ashai, of Clarksville.

Although the bill largely codifies existing immigration practices, opponents worried the symbolic status of a sanctuary would make Howard County a beacon for undocumented immigrants — an influx they said could bring in crime, reduce property values and burden the county's schools.

"Yes, I would be compelled to leave [if this passes]," Ellicott City resident Jen Nussbaum said Wednesday.

Andy Echague, of Elkridge, said undocumented immigrants would transform the county's lush green areas into driveways and convert single-family homes into multi-family homes.

"Illegal immigration and cancer have very similar characteristics," Echague said.

The comment drew incredulity from Fulton resident Josh Tzucker, a supporter of the bill, who fired back, "People are not cancers. Immigrants are not a disease."

Tzucker argued the bill would allow undocumented immigrants to come out of the shadows at a time when the government may "want to put them back into it."

The Council on American Muslim Relations, a major advocacy group for Muslims, and CASA de Maryland also testified Wednesday in support of the bill.

Patricia Hatch, a Columbia resident, said the sanctuary status gives undocumented immigrants opportunities to seek safety from their homeland and become a valuable part of the county's social fabric.

"For many there [is] absolutely no legal pathway to the United States and yet in many cases no way to remain in their homeland safely or to provide for their families if they stayed," Hatch said.

Scott Skogmo said the sanctuary status gives the impression the county can pick and choose between which laws it seeks to enforce.

"If every county starts picking and choosing which laws to enforce, our country will become a house of cards that will eventually collapse," the Ellicott City resident said.

A major bloc of Asian and Asian- American community members, many of whom are first- and second-generation immigrants, also staked a vocal stand against the bill, which they said gives undocumented immigrants a free pass to the citizenship they worked hard to attain.

Holding up her citizenship papers, county resident Tina Milton, who immigrated from Korea in the 1970s, said, "This piece of paper means nothing so that's a slap in our face."

Hongling Zhou, a Chinese immigrant who became a U.S. citizen after 14 years and lives in Clarksville, agreed, saying, "We are the hardworking taxpayers that are the backbones of this county's revenue source."

But other immigrants like Ellicott City resident Razia Kosi said the county should embrace all immigrants, especially those fearful and uncertain of the next four years. "Our children should not live in fear of coming to school," Kosi said.

Others like John Liao worried the bill would "tie the hands" of law enforcement.

Police Chief Gary Gardner is opposed to the bill, which he said is unnecessary because the county's police department already enacts the legislation. Gardner said he was concerned the department could lose critical federal funding if the county becomes a sanctuary.

Citing concerns about opening the floodgates to undocumented immigrants and crime, Ellicott City resident Dave Crawford, a former police officer with 35 years of experience in law enforcement, said the status would attract undocumented immigrants.

"The very people whose human rights you wish to protect you will put in jeopardy," Crawford said Wednesday.

Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman, a Republican, said he will veto the bill if the Council passes it. Kittleman said he was especially concerned about losing federal funding. Trump has pledged to strip sanctuary jurisdictions of federal funding.

The debate had decidedly political undertones.

Opponents like Alec Adams called the bill a "publicity stunt" that advances a "single-party agenda" by attacking Trump and, by extension, Trump supporters.

Abby Hendrix, chairwoman of the local Democratic central committee, said the bill's core purpose was to "speak for the little guy."

"If this is political posturing, then let it be," Hendrix said.

Ball and Terrasa crafted the bill as a direct response to President-elect Donald Trump, who they said "bolstered dangerous sentiments" and caused residents to "fear for their personal safety and the loss of civil liberties."

Little to no interruptions by the audience stalled Wednesday's meeting, unlike Tuesday's hearing where Council Chairman Jon Weinstein frequently called out disruptive behavior.

The Council will review the legislation at its monthly work session on Jan. 23 in Ellicott City. The Council could vote on the bill as early as Feb. 6.

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