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Three Maryland sheriffs speak out against legislation that would limit ability to work with ICE

Harford County Sheriff Jeffery Gahler, at the podium, and sheriff's from Cecil and Frederick counties were joined by state lawmakers and others expressing opposition to bills that would limit local law enforcement's ability to work with federal immigration agents.
Harford County Sheriff Jeffery Gahler, at the podium, and sheriff's from Cecil and Frederick counties were joined by state lawmakers and others expressing opposition to bills that would limit local law enforcement's ability to work with federal immigration agents. (James Whitlow)

Three Maryland sheriffs cooperating with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement signaled their opposition to state legislation that would make collaboration with the federal agency more difficult Tuesday.

Their goal was to oppose measures that would bring Maryland more in with sanctuary policies that have proliferated across the country.

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One of two bills, sponsored by a host of 36 House Democrats, seeks to curtail state law enforcement’s ability refer cases to ICE. If adopted, House Bill 388 would make collaboration between Maryland law enforcement and ICE contingent on a judicial warrant and put up other roadblocks for local agencies moving to collaborate with federal authorities.

Questions about a detainee’s country, state and city of birth could also be prohibited under the proposed law, which is why Harford County Sheriff Jeffrey R. Gahler spoke out against it, alongside Frederick and Cecil County’s sheriffs, Charles A. Jenkins and Scott A. Adams, on Tuesday in Annapolis. Sheriff Sam Page of Rockingham County, North Carolina, and Thomas Hodgson of Bristol County, Massachusetts, also joined the three Maryland sheriffs in their rejection of sanctuary policies.

Harford, Cecil and Frederick are the only three counties out of Maryland’s 24 jurisdictions to run 287(g) programs — wherein ICE delegates limited immigration enforcement authority to other law enforcement agencies.

Each county signs a memorandum of agreement with the federal agency that lists what actions they can take. Depending on the agreement, local law enforcement can be authorized to interrogate, detain and prepare charging documents against people illegally in the U.S.

Jenkins, whose office maintains the longest active 287(g) program in Maryland, said the issue was one of public safety — that the bills would place undue restrictions on law enforcement and hinder crime-fighting.

“Effective national security has to involve cooperation with federal agencies,” Jenkins said. “When we effectively do that, we make the streets safer and communities safer.”

Jenkins said Frederick County, which borders Montgomery County, built “a virtual wall” that kept violent immigrants out, to which he attributed a decline in the county’s crime.

In 2014, Montgomery County officials announced they would no longer honor federal requests to hold illegal immigrants beyond their scheduled release data. Immigrants make up about a third of Montgomery’s more than 1 million residents, according to U.S. Census data.

“There are a lot of emotional issues tied to this,” Jenkins said. “The folks that are coming into this country illegally are coming from the most violent places on Earth.

“They don’t leave that violence behind, they bring it with them,” he continued.

Agreements between ICE and the three counties only give immigration enforcement authority to corrections officers at county jails.

Harford County’s memorandum of agreement allows its corrections officers to interrogate people “who the officer believes to be an alien about his or her right to be or remain in the United States.” It also enables them to prepare charging documents for an ICE officer’s signature and “detain and transport” people to ICE facilities for removal.

Cecil’s and Frederick’s memorandums are almost identical to Harford’s.

Gahler called the proposed legislation “fake news” and attributed some of Harford County’s drop in crime to the federal partnership at issue.

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“I give a lot of that credit to our cooperative working program with our federal partners,” he said. “Being a sanctuary state is not dignified and it is not safe for our citizens.”

None of Harford, Cecil or Frederick counties’ legislators sponsored the bill.

One of the bill’s sponsors, Del. Joseline A. Peña-Melnyk, said a person’s provenance should not matter to law enforcement and suggested leaving the job of enforcing immigration law to federal authorities.

“This information doesn’t serve any legitimate law enforcement purpose,” Peña-Melnyk, a Democrat representing Prince George’s and Anne Arundel counties, wrote in an email. “Local and state police shouldn’t be in the business of enforcing our nation’s broken immigration laws.”

Nearly 1 million people in Maryland are foreign-born, Peña-Melnyk said, but the bill covers all of them regardless of their immigration status. She said the blanket protection mattered because ICE “routinely targets” legal immigrants. She also rejected the claim that this bill would place restrictions on law enforcement.

“Nothing in this bill would stop law enforcement from investigating criminal violations,” she wrote. “All this bill does is ensure that local and state law enforcement are not involved in the business of enforcing federal civil immigration law.”

Outside the hearing, supporters and detractors gathered, many wearing bright stickers advertising their positions.

Rabbi Sonya Starr, representing of the Howard County Board of Rabbis in a red shirt that read “immigrants are welcome here,” said immigration was an important metric, and that cooperation with ICE could scare immigrant communities into silence.

“Immigration is an important issue in our community and it is a barometer of how we treat people in our state,” she said. “Safety is important, but the question is the path to safety.”

Some “Angel Families” — relatives of a person killed by an illegal immigrant — spoke alongside the sheriffs. They stated that the sanctuary policies in question were harmful to the country, offering their own experiences and loss as reasoning.

Marla Wolff said her husband was killed by an immigrant driver just over two years ago. She said the driver, who was undocumented and had a long history of traffic offenses, ran over her husband while he was pulled over on the highway in Montgomery County. Jail officials refused to hand the driver over to ICE, she said, leaving her and her family in limbo.

“There were no real consequences to his actions,” she said. “All sanctuary laws prioritize the protection of illegal aliens over citizens.”

Jim Walden also spoke. He said his son was killed by an illegal immigrant the state of Maryland had known about for years — one with a criminal record.

“If you want to know the true cost of sanctuary, that’s it,” he said. “Don’t let it happen to anyone else — I don’t want to see another parent go through this.”

Another bill has been introduced by the House of Delegates to make institutions like hospitals and schools establish guidelines for dealing with ICE deportations. More than 12 people voiced their support for the bills at a Tuesday hearing. The overwhelming reason for their support was to eliminate fear in immigrant communities.

Nicholas Katz, the legal director of Casa de Maryland, an advocacy organization for immigrants, testified that immigrants feel uneasy or afraid of speaking to police because of the potential for deportation.

ICE, he said, has been known to haunt schools, courthouses, hospitals and other sensitive areas to scoop up immigrants for deportation.

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“You see victims being deterred from going to courthouses … because they’re afraid ICE is going to be waiting there,” Katz said.

Because of that fear, families in need of pubic benefits like SNAP, Medicare, the Affordable Care Act and others have forgone signing up for them to avoid attracting attention and potentially facing deportation.

The sheriffs also opposed another bill that would ban law enforcement in Maryland from detaining people on the basis of their immigration status or spend or receive money connected to a detention facility. The bill was introduced to the House in January, and a hearing is scheduled for Feb. 25.

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