Chanting "Clarity! Compassion! No Confusion!" a group of about 50 Maryland immigration advocates marched from Baltimore City Hall to the local office of the Department of Homeland Security on Thursday to demand a meeting with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The group of community advocates and local clergy called on the agency to clarify its policies on detaining and deporting undocumented immigrants. They also asked for information on where those who are arrested are held and requested that immigration officers remove the word 'POLICE' from their uniforms, to better distinguish them from Baltimore Police.
"We're here representing our immigrant brothers and sisters throughout the state of Maryland," said the Rev. Bruce Lewandowski, pastor of Sacred Heart of Jesus Church in Highlandtown, which counts a large number of immigrants among its congregation.
"Our brothers and sisters are in fear," he said. "There's a lot of stress and anxiety during this time, really tremendous uncertainty."
Group leaders said they had sent three letters since July to the office requesting meetings with no response. They delivered another with their demands Thursday but were turned away.
"ICE respects the right of individuals to peacefully demonstrate," said Carissa Cutrell, an agency spokeswoman, in a statement. "ICE personnel conduct themselves in accordance with the authorities conveyed to them under federal law and the Constitution, focusing enforcement resources on individuals who pose a threat to national security, public safety and border security."
A U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment Thursday.
The marchers consisted of local clergy and activist groups from around the state, under the umbrella of the Industrial Areas Foundation, including Action in Montgomery, Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development, Immigration Outreach Service Center and People Acting Together in Howard.
The Rev. Joseph Muth, pastor of St. Matthew's Catholic Church in Baltimore, led the group in prayer on the War Memorial Plaza before the two-block march to the old Customs House. He told them that their action followed a long tradition of Christians "taking the Word that we need to live to those who need to hear it."
"You are the God of our life, the God of our hearts, the God of whole nations of immigrant people," Muth said in his prayer.
Matt Hornbeck, principal of Hampstead Hill Academy in Baltimore, said about 350 of the elementary-middle school's 800 students from pre-kindergarten to eighth grade are Latino.
Undocumented immigrant families are learning what to keep in a box in case they're picked up by federal agents, such as documents detailing who they are and a certified letter describing who should pick up their children from school, Hornbeck said.
He said the stress of possibly losing a parent to deportation hangs over those children — a major detriment to their education.
"Physical, psychological and emotional security is a prerequisite for learning," Hornbeck said. "You can't teach somebody who's scared to death that their parents won't be there when they get home."
City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young, and Councilmen Zeke Cohen and Leon Pinkett joined the group outside City Hall.
Young said he is in favor of working to help undocumented immigrants who have lived in their communities for a long time to become American citizens, rather than deporting them. He urged ICE to meet with the group.
"I'm asking you to meet with BUILD and with this group so that we can have some kind of understanding on how we're going to handle this situation," Young said.
Rob English, lead organizer for Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development, said the refusal of immigration officials to meet with the group "is continuing to fracture the relationship between law enforcement and communities."
He stressed the importance of agents removing "POLICE" from their uniforms. Undocumented immigrants often don't call police in emergencies because they're afraid they'll be referred to ICE, English said.
"For immigrants in this state to be too fearful to call the police puts all of Maryland's neighborhoods at risk," he said.
In her statement, ICE's Cutrell described the special agents and deportation officers as sworn federal law enforcement officials, who "may initially identify themselves generically as 'police' during an encounter because it is the universally recognized term for law enforcement given that many of the individuals with whom ICE interacts are not native English speakers."
As to tracking detainees, she said the agency aims to be transparent, adding that people may use the Online Detainee Locator System to locate individuals in ICE custody.
After the group delivered the letter, the Rev. Randy Lord-Wilkerson, rector of the Episcopal Church of the Ascension in Gaithersburg, led a prayer on the Customs House steps.
"You have come to us in the guise of the stranger, the alien, the other," he prayed. "You have also put it into our hearts to be people of compassion, created in Your image, showing up on Your behalf to be stewards of this creation."
Lord-Wilkerson said his church counts many West African and Latino immigrants among its flock.
"This is what we do for our people," he said.
Owen Charles, president of the board of the Immigrant Outreach Service Center at St. Matthew's Church, said he emigrated from Trinidad and Tobago in a far different political atmosphere in the 1970s. He was still apprehensive.
"The process itself was more friendly than I thought it would be," Charles said. "Unfortunately, today that is not the case."
Immigration enforcement raids should be used to weed out undocumented immigrants with criminal convictions, not tear apart families, he said.
"It has to go back to being more humane," Charles said.