With veto on the horizon, Howard County Council votes to become sanctuary for undocumented immigrants -- without the label

Capping weeks of contentious debate intensified by President Donald Trump's executive orders on immigration, Howard County lawmakers declared the county a sanctuary for undocumented immigrants — without formally adopting the label of "sanctuary."

An audible sigh waved through the packed meeting room as more than 200 proponents and opponents, clad in red and green, reacted to the vote, which strips the bill of its most defining characteristic: the sanctuary title.

The bill, which passed with a slim 3-2 vote, has an uncertain future.

Last month, Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman promised to veto the bill. Four council members must support the bill to override. Days before the vote, Kittleman and local lawmakers attempted to craft a solution as an alternative to the bill. No alternative was considered Monday night.

Forty-eight minutes before the vote Monday, the room was packed as people held signs in their laps and waited for the decision, a flashback to previous public hearings that spurred nearly half a day of testimony that went past 3 a.m.

Proposed by Democratic council members Calvin Ball and Jen Terrasa, the bill codifies existing policies by prohibiting police and other county employees from enforcing immigration law or collecting information about immigration status, nationality or citizenship status.

In order to skirt the possibility of losing federal funding — which Trump says is on the line for "sanctuary" jurisdictions — local lawmakers stripped language from the bill that formally declares the county as a sanctuary, a label that set off weeks of debate.

The term "sanctuary" has no legal definition.

County Council Chairman Jon Weinstein, a Democrat, and Councilman Greg Fox, a Republican, bucked the title.

Hinting that the public debate about the bill has been more grounded in hyperbole and less in fact, Weinstein said the bill was "purely symbolic" and "incapable" of addressing the fears of undocumented immigrants at the risk of complicating the community's relationship with the police.

"An issue of this importance demands a thorough, inclusive and rational deliberative process," Weinstein said.

Ball distanced himself from Weinstein, saying the bill addresses "real concerns and fears" of undocumented immigrants.

"The only way we can tell whether or not we've allayed their fears is to listen to them," Ball said. "I think we have heard very clearly from that population."

Fox, who publicly opposed the bill weeks before the vote, shot down what he said was a poorly conceived piece of legislation that increased divisiveness in an attempt to bridge it.

"I've seen nothing that demonstrates the need for additional protection," Fox said, adding that the bill was "developed in a vacuum" and was unnecessary in a county "sought after" for its diversity and protections.

Councilwoman Mary Kay Sigaty, a Democrat, voted for the bill, saying she lamented having to make the decision.

"This decision I make means that somebody wins and somebody loses. And in that, we all lose," Sigaty said.

Ball and Terrasa introduced the proposal as a direct response to Trump, who they say galvanized support for xenophobia, Islamophobia and racism and created a climate of fear for undocumented immigrants.

"We're standing on the right side of history," Terrasa said.

Howard County Police Chief Gary Gardner opposed the label, which he said could compromise federal funding and limit information-sharing integral to ensuring community safety.

In response, the council amended the bill to clarify local police can communicate with federal authorities to improve coordination and protect public safety.

The vote comes less than two weeks after Trump issued an order to withhold federal grants from jurisdictions that refuse to cooperate with federal immigration enforcement.

The debate intensified after another executive order severely restricted immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries and suspended refugee admissions. A federal judge temporarily blocked the travel ban Friday.

Before Monday's vote, green-clad supporters of the sanctuary bill stood in front of Howard County's packed government chambers chanting, "This is what democracy looks like" as compatriots sang Woody Guthrie's "This Land is your Land" in the packed halls.

Opponent's voices, including several vocal Asian Americans, interjected the singing crowd before the meeting, shouting "law breakers" and "Donald Trump."

Earlier that evening, Democratic elected officials addressed supporters in a rally organized by Oakland Mills High School student Gavin Kohn in support of the sanctuary designation. Kohn said he was pushing to create sanctuary policies in Howard County Public Schools days before Ball introduced the proposal.

"The opposition has been scary," Kohn said. "We need to go farther to protect other people's rights, now more than ever."

Register of Wills Byron Macfarlane said the label was an opportunity to show Howard County is a welcoming place for immigrants — undocumented or documented.

"It's time to lead," said Macfarlane.

Del. Clarence Lam, a Democrat who supports the bill, lamented the Asian American community's opposition of the bill, which Lam said opponents were using to divide the immigrant community.

"There were members of my community who were divided," Lam said, adding that every day of a presidency under Trump was "a new day of recklessness."

Proponents of the bill celebrated at the conclusion of Monday night's session.

But the celebration could be short-lived since Kittleman plans to veto the bill and, through a spokesman, declined to comment. The vetoed bill could be up for a vote next month.

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