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Petition in Howard County seeks to create referendum on new sanctuary law

A citizens group has filed paperwork with the county Board of Elections in an effort to give voters the opportunity to overturn Howard County’s new sanctuary county law.

Citizens For A Strong And Safe Howard County (In Opposition of CB 63-2020) turned in 6,885 petition signatures on Friday, according to county elections Director Guy Mickley, to put the repeal of CB-63 on the ballot as a referendum for the November 2022 election.

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The group calls CB-63 “bad public policy” and says the law offers undocumented immigrants a false sense of security, threatens public safety in Howard and restricts county police from cooperating with federal law enforcement personnel, according to its website.

CB-63, legislation known as the Liberty Act introduced by County Council Vice Chair Opel Jones in the fall, prohibits county agencies from cooperating with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The law prevents county employees from questioning or reporting the immigration status of anyone using county services, visiting county buildings or in county public schools.

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The legislation passed in a 4-1 vote in December, with County Council member David Yungmann voting in opposition. County Executive Calvin Ball signed the legislation into law on Dec. 10.

Lisa Kim, the group’s chair, said her group’s work began in 2017 when she and other Howard community members opposed legislation introduced by then-County Council members Ball and Jen Terrasa to label Howard a sanctuary county. According to the national nonprofit Center for Immigration Studies, sanctuary jurisdictions are those that have laws or policies that obstruct immigration enforcement and may prohibit local agencies from complying with ICE.

The council passed the legislation that year, but then-County Executive Allan Kittleman vetoed it and an override of the veto later failed in the council.

“We ignited the county to show that we did not support [the 2017 bill],” Kim said. “We thought 2017 was the end of it. The petition [now] is to get it onto the ballot so the public can have their say.”

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Kim said as soon as Ball signed the Liberty Act into law, the group knew the referendum clock had begun.

Referendum petitions have to be filed with the county Board of Elections within 60 days of the law being enacted, according to the Howard County Charter, which was Monday for the Liberty Act. If the group has at least half but less than the full number of signatures required, both the time of the law to take effect and the time to collect the rest of the signatures is extended by 30 days.

The number of signatures the group had to collect was 5% of voter turnout in Howard in the 2018 election, which totaled 7,170, according to Kim. The group now has until March 10 to collect the remaining signatures.

The Board of Elections has 21 days by state law to verify the petition signatures, according to Mickley.

The citizens group hired National Ballot Access, a for-profit company based in Georgia that helps collect ballot signatures, to help it try to qualify. The company has been working in the county for five weeks with 10 to 15 employees canvassing to get signatures in the county, according to Kim.

“The ability to get this many signatures in this short period of time is in and of itself polling [on this issue],” Kim said.

The group has an end goal of 11,000 signatures. Kim said the group is overshooting in case there are duplicates or any invalidated signatures on the petition.

Council member Jones said he first heard about the petition effort on social media and was surprised.

“If it gets to an actual referendum, I’m sure that Howard County residents will uphold it,” Jones said.

He said it’s important for the undocumented community to feel safe in Howard County. “It’s about an added benefit of comfort and an added benefit of peace,” he said.

In 2017, during Kittleman’s administration, the county police department made it policy to not ask about immigration status except in investigations of suspected criminal activity. Jones said his legislation takes that policy and applies it to other county agencies; whether at a Howard County public school or visiting a county agency, employees will not be allowed to question immigration status.

Ball said the law protects individuals who are targeted because of their immigration status.

“I think not just having policy in place but [a] law in place that is clear and respects people’s immigration status is something that we should be an example for, and I think we shall see how things unfold over time,” Ball said referring to the potential referendum.

Kim said the law removes the ability for police to use immigration status as a reason for probable cause.

“It’s putting the welfare of the illegal immigrant above the welfare of the American citizen,” Kim said. “We’re giving voters a chance to make up their minds.”

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