Immigration debate moves to Howard County as politicians consider 'sanctuary' bill

Howard County considers 'sanctuary' designation for immigrants

President-elect Donald Trump made his preferred policies on immigration clear during the campaign: Build a wall on the Mexican border, deport millions of undocumented immigrants, increase the number of immigration agents and establish a registry of Muslims entering from other countries.

The possibility of those policies becoming reality after Trump takes over the White House in less than three weeks has spurred reactions from several local governments in Maryland.

Some, led by Republicans, pledged to continue to help the federal government with immigration enforcement. Others, led by Democrats, reiterated support for undocumented immigrants, promising to not help the federal government send them away.

The latest jurisdiction to wade into this contentious territory is Howard County, where the County Council is scheduled to consider a bill Tuesday officially establishing Howard as a "sanctuary county" for undocumented immigrants.

"The recent national political climate, increased incidents of hate speech and violence, and unfortunate statements by our nation's president-elect have caused many in the Howard County community to fear for their personal safety and the loss of civil liberty," said Councilman Calvin Ball, a Columbia Democrat who is co-sponsoring the sanctuary bill, which he'll introduce at Tuesday's council meeting.

The debate in Howard could be interesting, as the county has a divided government. Democrats hold a 4-1 majority on the County Council, but the county executive is Republican Allan H. Kittleman.

Neither Kittleman nor his police chief, Gary Gardner, has staked out a position on the bill, according to their spokespersons.

The council's lone Republican, Greg Fox, dismissed the bill as partisan political posturing.

"Regardless of the bill's intent, Calvin Ball is showing a very poor pattern of behavior," Fox said.

Howard County and other local governments are in an awkward position in the immigration debate. They don't set the nation's immigration policies, but they are often called on by their constituents to either enforce or ignore those policies.

In the weeks since Trump's victory, some local leaders have adopted or emphasized policies of not assisting federal immigration officials.

Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz said he established a policy several years ago that police officers should not ask people they encounter about their immigration status. After the election, Kamenetz emphasized that the policy extends to the five colleges and universities in the county.

"The role of county police is to go after people who commit crimes in this county," said Kamenetz, a Democrat. "Any efforts to try and become involved in federal immigration policy does not help our county police with the job that they are required to do."

Kamenetz wouldn't say whether those policies make Baltimore County a sanctuary county — which is a loosely defined term — but said: "We are a county that is compassionate and cares about the rights of everyone who lives here."

Baltimore City also has prohibited police from asking about a person's citizenship status since 2012.

After the election, then-Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake called a news conference to publicize the policy. Mayor Catherine E. Pugh has said the policy will continue under her leadership.

"It is her commitment that the full resources of city government are easily accessible to our immigrant population, and that people, regardless of where they are from or their status, are always treated with dignity and respect," said Anthony McCarthy, a spokesman for Pugh.

The Baltimore City Council recently passed a bill to create municipal identification cards that residents — including immigrants who lack other IDs — can use to access services such as libraries and recreation centers.

Liz Alex of the pro-immigrant group CASA called Trump's election a catalyst for local politicians to make a public stand on supporting their immigrant communities.

"I can't think of a more important time for people to be thinking critically about where they stand," Alex said.

After the election, several university presidents in Maryland signed an online statement in support of students in the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. The program allows some young people who are in the country without legal documentation to remain in the country. Some fear those students could be targeted for deportation under the Trump administration.

"They want to be on the side of immigrants and maintaining a welcoming space," Alex said of those who have stood up for sanctuary-like policies.

But cities and counties that adopt such immigrant-friendly policies run the risk of losing federal funding or facing other federal sanctions — actions that could be more likely under Trump, said Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies for the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington think tank.

Vaughan has identified more than 300 so-called sanctuary cities, counties and states across the country, including Baltimore City, Montgomery County and Prince George's County.

Even as President Barack Obama largely "tolerated" sanctuary policies, the Department of Justice is considering yanking funding from 10 jurisdictions that have policies that run afoul of federal law, Vaughan said. She expects the Trump administration will cast a wider net.

Vaughan said it's fine if cities and counties decide not to ask people about their immigration status. But local governments should not hinder the work of Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents by not sharing information or not honoring requests to detain local prisoners longer in jail so they can be investigated for immigration violations.

"Local governments don't get to set immigration policy. They don't get to pick and choose which illegal immigrants stay here," Vaughan said. "Only the federal government does."

Howard County's sanctuary bill would prohibit county employees, including police officers, from enforcing immigration law, helping immigration agents collect information or asking people about their nationality or immigration status, or about the status of another person.

The bill has clauses saying the policy would not apply if it runs counter to federal law, but Vaughan said such language might not protect the county from federal action.

Some Maryland counties have embraced helping the federal government with immigration enforcement.

Frederick, Howard and Worcester counties accept money from the federal government to house ICE detainees in otherwise empty space in local jails. Anne Arundel County is negotiating with the federal government to house ICE detainees, too.

Harford County recently signed an agreement with ICE that will train deputies stationed at the county jail to screen incoming inmates for possible immigration violations. Frederick County already participates in the program.

For Harford County Sheriff Jeffrey R. Gahler, joining the program was an obvious and easy decision.

"I can't imagine any jurisdiction not wanting to identify and remove from their community a person who poses a national security threat, or even if they are committing robberies and burglaries," said Gahler, a Republican elected in 2014.

Brad Botwin, founder of the group Help Save Maryland, which has lobbied against immigrant-friendly laws and polices, said more local governments should follow the lead of Harford County and help with immigration enforcement rather than impede it.

Local governments can't "pick and choose" to follow some federal laws and ignore others, Botwin said.

"They're acting like this is the Confederacy and they have decided they're not cooperating with the federal government," he said. "It's all the politics, and it's going to come crashing down on them. This was the issue of the election."

Baltimore Sun Media Group reporter Fatimah Waseem contributed to this article.

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