Howard County Council seeks 'sanctuary' status ahead of Trump presidency

In a direct response to what they say are "dangerous sentiments" bolstered by the election of President-elect Donald Trump, local lawmakers are seeking to make Howard County a sanctuary jurisdiction, a status that bars county employees, including police, from voluntarily cooperating with federal immigration authorities.

Proposed by council members Calvin Ball and Jen Terrasa, both Democrats, the designation limits county employees' enforcement of immigration laws, bars inquiries into citizenship and prohibits discrimination. The measure does not change the police's ability to investigate or arrest people who violate criminal law, among other exceptions.

Terrasa and Ball argue the designation is a proactive step to reaffirm the county's commitment to immigrants and minorities in the face of increased xenophobia, Islamophobia and racism galvanized by what they say are "unfortunate statements" by Trump.

"The recent national political climate, increased incidents of hate speech and violence, and unfortunate statements made by our nation's President-elect, has caused many in the Howard County community to fear for their personal safety and the loss of civil liberties," Ball said.

Sanctuary cities have no legal definition. More than 300 jurisdictions throughout the country, including Takoma Park, Montgomery County and Baltimore City, have passed a hodgepodge of policies, laws and orders to create sanctuaries that generally restrict state and local governments from alerting federal law enforcement about people who immigrated to the country illegally. The policies have filled a void created by Congress' failure to approve a comprehensive overhaul of the country's immigration system.

Even if the council passes the measure, state and federal law would trump the local designation. All federal and state laws preempt the sanctuary designation, according to the bill.

Earlier this year, Trump, who has characterized some Mexican immigrants as criminals and rapists and called for national registry of Muslims, pledged to strip federal funding from sanctuaries, which opponents of illegal immigration argue protect undocumented immigrants from criminal prosecution. Trump has said sanctuary cities have resulted in "so many needless deaths."

The sanctuary movement gained nationwide attention in July when an undocumented immigrant who had been deported five times to Mexico allegedly shot to death Kathryn Steinle in San Francisco. Before the incident, local police released the man from jail, despite a request from the Department of Homeland Security to deport him.

Supporters argue county employees should not be forced to enforce federal immigration laws, a role that damages law enforcement's relationship with the immigrant community, breeds mistrust and discourages immigrants from reporting crime.

Jonathan Greene, an immigration attorney with the Greene Law Firm, a Columbia-based firm focused on immigration and family law, said the bill will not interfere with federal immigration enforcement.

"Howard County is joining with others who have stood up to say that federal immigration enforcement is not our job and we're not going to simply be part of that effort," Greene said.

The election results have prompted significant fear among undocumented immigrants, said Hector Garcia, executive director of Foreign-born Information Referral Network, a nonprofit in the county that works with immigrants, refugees and asylees.

"I do not see this as a political issue, even though it is. A lot of individuals do not feel safe at this point, even though nothing has happened. The reality is, people are scared and we need to promote trust and community," said Garcia.

Roughly 60,000 people in the county are foreign-born, according to county data.

Larry Walker, president of the African American Community Roundtable, said the immigrant community in Howard needs assurances they are protected.

"I would hope that in Howard County, people will be big enough to support this and protect the people serving throughout our community," Walker said.

Howard County Police Chief Gary Gardner and Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman have not staked positions on the measure amid questions on how the proposal would impact local law enforcement, according to county spokespersons.

But Councilman Greg Fox, the only Republican on the council, said he sees no need for the bill, which he dismissed as political posturing. Fox also said he was disturbed by clauses in the bill, which state the designation is necessary in response to the election of Trump.

"Regardless of the bill's intent, Calvin Ball is showing a very poor pattern of behavior and that he is nothing more than a partisan political hack," Fox said.

Ball responded by saying his proposal is consistent with his legislative priorities.

"There are times when my Republican friends disagree, however, I believe leaders should lead," he said.

Jessica Vaughan, of the Center for Immigration Studies, an organization that opposes sanctuary cities and illegal immigration, said Howard's bill is not comparable to other sanctuary resolutions, which she said go further to work around federal immigration law enforcement.

"I'm at a loss to see how this would affect the real life practices of Howard County officials or force them to do anything they're already doing," Vaughan said. "This idea that immigration officers are suddenly going to be raiding elementary schools and so county officials need to enact these policies to protect people from this activity is just silly. It doesn't happen that way and it never will. This is a solution in search of a problem."

The county's detention center does not participate in an Immigration and Customs Enforcement program called 287(g) where county employees take suspects into custody for alleged immigration violations and notify ICE. But like other jurisdictions in the state, the county holds undocumented immigrants in its local jails, generating a steady revenue stream for the county. This year, ICE will pay $1.2 million into the county's general fund.

In Baltimore City, former Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake signed an executive order in 2012 to bar employees from asking about their immigration status.

Protecting students

Ball and Terrasa are also calling on Howard County Public Schools to prepare for the fall-out of new immigration policies.

In a Dec. 21 letter, the council members urged the school system's leadership to implements steps to protect immigrant students, including requiring a review by the superintendent and legal counsel of any requests for information made by ICE.

Although the county's school board has not staked a position on the sanctuary bill, board vice chairwoman Bess Altwerger said she plans to introduce a motion to apply the recommendations.

Altwerger said she supports the county's sanctuary bill.

"We're going to abide by the law, but the bill also offers protections for our citizens that are law abiding and who have are good upstanding citizens or non-citizens of our county. We've had so many incidents and so many stories of students feeling really afraid. They live in fear now. And we can't allow that to happen. Not in our county," Altwerger said.

Despite recent pressure from current and former students at a community forum earlier this month, Howard Community College refused to establish itself as a sanctuary campus. In the fall, 121 undocumented students enrolled in for-credit classes, a fraction of the 9,741 for-credit students enrolled in the college.

"At this time, there is much unknown about how such a choice would impact students and colleges or how immigration laws may change," wrote Elizabeth Homan, executive director of public relations and marketing for the college, in a prepared statement.

In a letter signed by roughly 600 college and university leaders, college president Kathleen Hetherington expressed support to expand and renew a federal program that protects eligible youth who immigrated to the United States when they were children from deportation.

It is unclear if the policy, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, will sunset under a Trump presidency

FIRN is already discouraging undocumented immigrants from applying to the program, Garcia said.

"Our message to someone who qualifies is to wait. We do not know where the new administration will go. Right now, it's a waiting game," Garcia said.

Homan said the college only releases student and alumni record information in response to legally issued court orders. The college is encouraging advisers and counselors to meet with students to discuss concerns.

In the meantime, Ball and Terrasa are urging the college to develop a plan to support students, staff and families displaced by federal immigration policies.

A public hearing on the measure is scheduled for Tuesday, Jan. 17 at 7 p.m in the George Howard Building in Ellicott City. To view the legislation, go to the council's website.Terrasa was not immediately available for comment.

This story has been updated.

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