Frederick's mistaken obsession with immigration enforcement

A federal appellate court last week found fault with two Frederick County sheriff's deputies who arrested a Salvadoran woman on the basis of a civil immigration warrant, but county officials appear unbowed in their determination to act as adjunct border patrol agents. After discussing the case at their meeting Thursday, four of the five county commissioners voted to send a letter of support to the sheriff and his deputies, and Commissioners President Blaine Young pledged that county officials would continue to enforce immigration laws as much as possible in an effort to make Frederick the Maryland county that is "most unfriendly to illegal aliens."

That would be a mistake. As the case of Roxana Santos makes clear, the Frederick County Sheriff's Office's zeal to enforce immigration law skews the department's priorities in a way that makes officers prone to mistakes and subjects the innocent to the possibility of unjustifiably intrusive — and potentially racially motivated — questioning and detention.

In October, 2008, Ms. Santos was sitting behind the Common Market food co-op, where she worked, eating a sandwich. Two sheriff's deputies on patrol in the area drove by, saw her, and stopped the car. They got out, approached her and asked if she spoke English — she said no — and whether she worked at the market. She said she did and conveyed that she was on break. One of the deputies asked if she had identification, and she said she didn't, though she later recalled that she had a Salvadoran ID, which she gave to the deputies. They called her information in to the dispatch officer and learned that she had a civil — not criminal — immigration warrant against her.

Civil immigration violations typically involve things like overstaying a visa, whereas criminal violations include illegal entry into the country or re-entry after deportation. As a general rule, state and local police are not authorized to enforce civil immigration law. Nonetheless, the deputies arrested her, and she wound up spending 45 days in jail.

On Wednesday, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the deputies violated Ms. Santos' Fourth Amendment rights. Although it dismissed her complaints against the deputies as individuals, the court remanded the case to district court to proceed against the Frederick County commissioners and Sheriff Chuck Jenkins in his official capacity.

Sheriff Jenkins signed an agreement with U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, in early 2008, making his agency the first in Maryland to play a role in immigration enforcement. The agreement didn't give his deputies blanket authority to enforce immigration laws; rather, it created a system in which some deputies would receive training to conduct specific enforcement activities. The two deputies who confronted Ms. Santos, however, were not a part of that program.

What, then, might have led them to question a woman who was doing nothing more suspicious than eating a sandwich? The encounter occurred just as sentiment in Frederick County against immigrants in the country illegally was running high. The commissioners at the time had recently considered legislation that would have barred such immigrants from receiving any county services — including schooling — and another bill that would have barred the printing of county documents in any language other than English. Both proposals failed, but they clearly indicated an environment in which county officials considered cracking down on immigration violations to be a top priority.

The opinion in Ms. Santos' case does not directly address the question of whether it was legal for the deputies to target someone for questioning solely based on her ethnicity, as was evidently the case. The question of whether the incident violated her rights to equal protection under the law was not before the appellate court, but the judges nonetheless noted that it was suspect and cited two other federal circuit courts that found serious concerns with the practice.

But that sort of thing is bound to happen when law enforcement officials consider it their duty to make life difficult for people in the country illegally. The inevitable result will be more mistakes from sheriff's deputies with cursory training, if any, in the nation's complicated immigration laws and greater distrust of law enforcement among minority groups. Cracking down on illegal immigration may seem like good politics in Frederick County, but opening the government up to lawsuits and diminishing public safety is bad governance there and anywhere.

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