Sanctuary in Howard

What would Howard's sanctuary bill change? Practically, not much. Symbolically, a lot.

Local governments, and local law enforcement agencies in particular, shouldn't get caught up in the business of enforcing immigration law. That's the federal government's responsibility, and to the extent police and sheriff's departments get involved, they erode trust between officers and the community. If police are viewed as immigration agents, immigrants — even those with legal status in this country — may be reluctant to come forward to report crimes for fear that it could lead to deportation for them or loved ones. If that happens, it puts everyone at risk. It's true in big cities like Baltimore, and it's true in suburban jurisdictions like Howard County, where the County Council is now considering a bill to declare Howard a "sanctuary county."

There's more than a bit of politics wrapped up in the Howard sanctuary bill. It has been proposed by two Democratic council members and includes in its "wherefore" clauses loads of criticism of President-elect Donald Trump's policies and rhetoric, and the reported rise in xenophobic and anti-Muslim hate speech that has accompanied his election. But what the legislation would actually accomplish in practice is likely modest; Howard County already does well on the kinds of issues the legislation seeks to address. Indeed, its biggest down-side may be that it provides too much of a sense of security for undocumented immigrants in Howard.

Specifically, the legislation says that county employees may not assist federal officials in enforcing immigration laws or help federal immigration officials to collect information about individuals; that county employees may not inquire about the immigration status of those they encounter in their official duties (except in instances such as voter registration or application for a passport); that they may not discriminate based on a person's immigration status; and that they must keep information about a person's immigration status confidential except as otherwise required by law.

It does not, however, prevent federal agents from enforcing immigration laws in Howard County. Nor would it necessarily even achieve some of its stated goals. As is the case with sanctuary laws in many other jurisdictions, the legislation includes various exemptions for activities "required or authorized by state or federal law." And a 1995 federal law says state and local governments can't prohibit their employees from "sending to, or receiving from, the Immigration and Naturalization Service information regarding the citizenship or immigration status, lawful or unlawful, of any individual." That is to say, some provisions of the law may be preempted before they are even enacted.

Still, local governments do have real discretion on whether the comply with requests from Immigration and Customs Enforcement to detain suspected undocumented immigrants who wind up in the local jail for a period of time after they would ordinarily be released so that they can be picked up by federal agents. Howard County stopped holding offenders beyond their release date solely because of an ICE detainer in 2014 and has no plans to change that.

Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman said this week that he will veto the bill if it passes. His explanation was not that he wants Howard to be unwelcoming to people without legal immigration status but that he thinks the legislation doesn't accomplish much and could disrupt some useful coordination between local police and federal immigration authorites. For example, when ICE agents plan a raid in Howard County, they inform the police, not so the local officers can participate but so they can help minimize any disturbance to the community or risk of harm to bystanders. Mr. Kittleman also expressed concern that the Trump administration might seek to cut off grant funding to self-identified sanctuary counties.

But 10th amendment protections against federal coersion of state and local governments would likely prevent Mr. Trump from yanking existing local grants. And the legislation could be amended to avoid conflicts with federal law and allow the minimal amount of cooperation the police department and ICE now exercise.

At heart, the executive's objection is a sense that this bill is a solution in search of a problem. "We do things right," he said in an interview. "It would be different if there was a problem." But what he may be discounting is the extent to which Mr. Trump's election has frightened many in the immigrant community, and the value of even symbolic reassurance.

For whatever practical limitations this legislation may have, and whatever political overtones it may carry, it is an important statement of principle that people of whatever immigration status should have no fear of cooperating with police, going to the library, getting a building permit or engaging in any other way with the Howard County government. It doesn't mean undocumented immigrants in Howard County are immune from deportation or that they are being given special rights, just that Howard's government is codifying its commitment to leave immigration enforcement in the purview of the federal government, where it belongs.

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