A.G. Sessions warns Maryland on sanctuary status

From a No ICE in Baltimore rally in February
From a No ICE in Baltimore rally in February (Marie Machin/For City Paper)

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced today he will withhold federal funds from cities and states that do not certify that they are not "sanctuary" jurisdictions. At stake is more than $4 billion in federal aid to law enforcement. 

"Countless Americans would be alive today," Sessions told reporters in a surprise appearance in the White House briefing room, "if these policies of sanctuary cities were ended."


Sessions addressed Maryland directly, saying a legislative effort to make a sanctuary state "would be such a mistake."

Gov. Larry Hogan called that state bill "absurd" and threatened a veto last Monday, March 20. But just a day later, mayors in seven cities in four states held a telephone press conference to declare their own legal defiance of federal immigration officials. 

The press conference was part of a "day of action" by the U.S. Conference of Mayors to call for comprehensive immigration reform. The conference also decried ICE's first-ever "Weekly Declined Detainer Outcome Report," published on March 20. It is a listing of incidents in which criminal aliens were released by local jurisdictions despite ICE's request they be held.

The report says ICE issued 3,083 detainers between Jan. 28 and Feb. 3. This figure will increase, the report says, because "ICE offices have been instructed to resume issuing detainers on all removable aliens in a [law enforcement agency's] custody regardless of prior non-cooperation."

A chart listed 206 detainers as "declined," including a single Baltimore case in which a person wanted by ICE was released from a county jail despite the detainer. The detainer was issued last October, and declined on Feb. 1. The person released was Mexican, charged with drug trafficking.

So Sessions' announcement is just the latest volley in a burgeoning national battle over immigration policy, with Baltimore City—and mayors across the country—taking stands on behalf of undocumented immigrants, while partisans on the other side disseminate horror stories about immigrant crimes.

Stripped of the overheated rhetoric, the debate centers on how energetically existing immigration law should be enforced. This has changed several times throughout history. 

Until the late 1990s, deportations were rare, with only about 2.1 million people expelled from the U.S. over the 105 years between 1892 and 1997. President George W. Bush's administration ramped it up significantly, and under President Barack Obama, ICE and other agencies removed 2.5 million undocumented immigrants. But late in his final term, President Obama carved-out practical exceptions for people brought across the border as infants, and made capturing non-criminal aliens a low priority.

President Donald Trump's Executive Order 13768, issued on Jan. 25, effectively reverses a 2013 policy called the Priority Enforcement Program (PEP), wherein state and local jailers would notify ICE when someone was booked, and ICE would determine whether the person was a priority for removal, based on his or her prior criminal record or warrants.

"Under PEP, ICE would seek the transfer of a removable individual when that individual had been convicted of a specified offense, had intentionally participated in an organized criminal gang to further the illegal activity of the gang, or posed a danger to national security," according to a Fiscal and Policy note accompanying the bill Hogan has threatened to veto, which is called the "Trust Act."

Trump's new rule essentially restores a 2008 law under which jailers run every arrestee's fingerprints through the immigration database, which automatically notifies ICE if the person is deportable.

Called the "Secure Communities Initiative," that policy's key legal wrinkle is this: participation is voluntary.

Maryland's Trust Act would tell state law enforcement that they are not participating. But it does not mean that state law enforcement will refuse any contact with ICE. It just requires the feds to bring a subpoena or a warrant.

Last Monday, on the day that report appeared, and while the state legislature pondered the Trust Act, the Baltimore City Council passed a resolution requesting ICE not come after non-criminal undocumented immigrants. There was a press conference before the council meeting highlighting the plight of Baltimore's undocumented immigrants.


Matt Hornbeck, the principal of Hampstead Hill Academy, did not want to use his student's name, for fear of further trouble. So he called the 9th-grader "Jose" to tell his story to a crowd of activists and journalists at City Hall.

"Jose's father dropped him off at school," Hornbeck said, adding that the father—who he also did not name—has a job, a driver's license, a decent car, and no criminal record. ICE agents followed Jose's father home and arrested him, Hornbeck said. They took him to a jail in Frederick.

Jose, a good student, stopped coming to school, Hornbeck said. His stepmother is five-months pregnant. There are two other children in the house. They are scared.

It was but one example, according to Hornbeck and other activists, of ICE agents terrorizing Baltimore residents since President Trump took office.

Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis has consistently said that city police do not check immigration status. At the March 20 press conference at City Hall, he reiterated that. "We do not work with ICE," he said. "We do not keep a database of country-of-origin. We will not work with federal law enforcement agencies for the sole purpose of immigration enforcement. Because public safety depends on mutual trust."

City Councilman Zeke Cohen (1st District) announced that CASA de Maryland, an immigrant rights activist group, is working to create a "sanctuary district" in East Baltimore.

"We only want ICE helping when there are acts of violence," he said—something ICE has not been doing of late.

Activists recounted the stories of two residents—one a barber, the other a business-owner—who ICE agents took off the street in front of the Walgreens in Highlandtown last Feb. 9. An ICE spokesman confirmed the men—Manuel Lopez Suarez, an Ecuadoran, and Serbando Fernando Rodriguez, from Honduras—were arrested. Rodriguez had illegally re-entered the United States after a previous deportation; Suarez was an "unlawfully present immigration fugitive with a final order of removal."

Neither man has a criminal record in Maryland. According to ICE, both of them are still in Frederick Country Adult Detention Center.

"When ICE behaves that way, it erodes public safety," Cohen said. At the council meeting following the press conference he quoted Martin Niemöller, the Protestant pastor and Nazi critic, who said "First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Socialist."

Likening undocumented immigrants to his own grandmother, who escaped the Holocaust, Cohen implicitly compared ICE Agents to Nazis.


Fox News analyst Tucker Carlson challenged Cohen on the air the next day (citing this newspaper in the process). Fox has been hammering on the Feb. 16 alleged rape, in a Rockville High School bathroom, of a 14-year-old girl by two fellow students, at least one of whom—Henry Sanchez-Milian—was an undocumented immigrant.

Cohen stood up to the Fox News bloviator, parrying Carlson's gibing ambush with a smile. Carlson accused Cohen of not caring about a 14-year-old rape victim, and mocked Cohen's comparison of Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents to Nazis. But Carlson's argument senselessly blamed the rape (which Cohen denounced) on the broad policy goal of humane and practical immigration enforcement. Rounding up all the undocumented immigrants won't prevent rape—and it will make local cops' jobs that much harder. Cohen tried gamely to get this across.

To no avail, apparently.

"If you have not gone out and read the outrage over the rape, you must be blind," a Maryland anti-immigration nonprofit, Help Save Maryland, wrote to Maryland State Senate President Mike Miller. "Even your favorite news outlet reported on the rape, CNN.... You know things are bad when they report on it. You can't get any further left bias reporting than the liberal CNN news to report."

Help Save Maryland, founded in 2011, is lobbying hard against the Trust Act.

In Baltimore, meanwhile, activists are staging "know your rights" workshops to prepare undocumented immigrants and their families for the knock on their doors. The El Salvadoran Consulate is supposed to visit Hampstead Hill Academy in order to issue passports to students whose parents are undocumented, so if their parents are deported, they'll at least have the paperwork they need to visit them and return to the U.S.

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