Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, weighing in on a divisive political battle that has erupted since Donald Trump was elected president, added his name Monday to the growing list of Democrats vowing to shield immigrants from deportation.
Kamenetz, who is considering a bid for governor in 2018, said he supports efforts by universities to create "sanctuary campuses," and said he had directed county police to avoid taking part "in any effort" to identify the immigration status of students.
But the announcement — which followed similar statements from leaders in Baltimore, Montgomery County and cities across the country — likely has more to do with political symbolism after a bitter presidential election campaign than any change in how the county will deal with immigration.
In a not-so-subtle nod to that political context, Kamenetz used part of the letter to call on Republican Gov. Larry Hogan — a potential rival in 2018 — to support protecting undocumented immigrants at all of Maryland's universities.
A spokesman for Hogan did not respond to a request for comment.
"I strongly support your efforts to protect undocumented students from deportation in the wake of the recent presidential election," Kamenetz wrote in a letter to the leaders of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, Towson University and three other schools in the county.
"I have also advised Chief [James W.] Johnson that the Baltimore County Police Department should not participate in any effort to identify otherwise law-abiding students from our college campuses that would subject them to deportation by federal authorities," Kamenetz wrote.
Freeman A. Hrabowski III, UMBC's president, told students and faculty this month that he's working to understand options under state and federal law to make the school a sanctuary campus for students in the country without legal documentation.
Mike Lurie, a spokesman for the University System of Maryland, which includes College Park, UMBC and 10 other institutions, said individual schools may choose not to help federal agents enforce immigration laws.
Republicans in Baltimore County and elsewhere were quick to dismiss Kamenetz's move as political.
"The 2018 election is two years away," said County Councilman David Marks, a Republican who represents Towson.
"I support Governor Hogan's call for a thoughtful approach to this issue, and regardless, think the county executive's staff should consult with the County Council before issuing press releases," he said. "After all, we approve the funding for the police and community college system."
As a practical matter, neither federal nor local law enforcement officials are likely to storm college campuses in search of student immigrants. But if they have a warrant, law enforcement may pursue a suspect regardless of any sanctuary policy put into place.
The authority of local police to enforce immigration law is sharply limited.
The Supreme Court, ruling in 2012 on a controversial state immigration law in Arizona, said police may ask about a person's immigration status as part of a routine interaction for another issue — a traffic stop, for instance — as long as it does not prolong that contact.
But local police, in most cases, may not stop someone for the sole purpose of asking for papers, and they cannot carry out immigration raids independent of federal agents, said Lena Graber, special projects attorney with the Immigrant Legal Resource Center in California.
Because immigration is a federal prerogative, it falls to federal agents to enforce, she said.
Local police "don't have a basis to do it on their own," Graber said. "Arizona tried to give police a basis to stop people, and it was struck down, because it was pre-empted."
Still, Kamenetz's letter underscored a clear rhetorical difference between jurisdictions in Maryland run by Democrats and Republicans.
Owen McEvoy, a spokesman for Anne Arundel County Executive Steven R. Schuh, said the Republican is "committed to assisting our federal partners in enforcing federal immigration law."
McEvoy said Arundel is "not contemplating any action similar to Baltimore County's." He said officials there viewed Kamenetz's letter "as just another political stunt of someone obviously eyeing a run for governor."
Before the election, Schuh's administration was considering working with the Obama administration to house detained immigrants at the Ordnance Road Correctional Center in Glen Burnie.
GOP officials in Carroll and St. Mary's counties — both of which are also home to four-year universities — did not respond to repeated requests for comment about the "sanctuary campus" movement in Maryland.
After Trump's election, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake reaffirmed her commitment to a 2012 executive order that prohibited city police from asking about a person's citizenship status.
Big-city police departments have tried for years to steer clear of enforcing federal immigration law for fear of scaring away immigrants who might need services or be useful in criminal investigations.
Baltimore, like New York, Chicago and others, is widely considered a "sanctuary city." Trump has suggested cutting federal funding to such cities.
But the term is ill-defined, and it is not at all clear whether that funding would actually be in jeopardy. In Maryland, the attorney general's office has advised against taking some of the actions Republicans have sought, suggesting it could open local governments up to constitutional challenges.
Trump campaigned on a promise to end a program established by President Barack Obama that has allowed undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country as children to stay.
Since the election, the Republican has softened his rhetoric. Where he once said he would deport 11 million undocumented immigrants, he has since suggested he would focus on 2 million to 3 million who have committed crimes since arriving in the United States — an approach similar to Obama's.
Todd Eberly, a political scientist at St. Mary's College, described Kamenetz's letter as a political tactic.
The Democrat "has got to line up support among the most committed activist members of his own party," Eberly said. "For him to publicly make this pledge — which in and of itself is meaningless — he's sort of staked out a position."