In a teaser of what could be a divisive immigration debate in Howard County, residents mistakenly trickled in at the Howard County Council's monthly voting session Tuesday night to stake positions on a controversial bill that would designate the county as a sanctuary for undocumented immigrants in response to the election of President-elected Donald Trump.
The proposal, which is gaining regional and national traction, is already ginning up controversy and confusion in the county — even though it was only introduced Tuesday night. The council will officially take testimony on the bill on Jan. 17.
Council members Calvin Ball and Jen Terrasa, both Democrats, proposed the measure last week, which would limit county employees' enforcement of immigration laws, bar inquiries into citizenship and prohibit discrimination. Council members Mary Kay Sigaty and Jon Weinstein, also Democrats, haven't taken a position on the bill.
Confusion was apparent Tuesday night as residents attempted to understand whether the bill is a political designation that creates the perception the county is a sanctuary for undocumented immigrants or will lead to actual policy changes.
In a direct response to "dangerous sentiments" bolstered by the election of President-elect Donald Trump, local lawmakers are seeking to make Howard County a sanctuary jurisdiction, a status that bars county employees, including police, from voluntarily cooperating with federal immigration authorities.
David Dobbs, a retired naval officer who has lived in the county for 23 years and a fourth generation German-American, stood outside the council's meeting room after the session concluded, explaining the bill to roughly a dozen people who were Chinese-Americans.
"Passing this bill will erode the citizenship, privilege and rights that we have here in America and in Howard County," he said. "Let people come in and obtain their citizenship like everybody else did."
Dobbs doubts the bill, which includes broad exemptions that emphasize state and federal law preempt the local law, will change how law enforcement operates.
"Ultimately, it's a bill about nothing," Dobbs said.
Jean Xu, who is president of the Chinese-American Parent Association, said the immigrant community is struggling to understand implications of the bill.
"People are confused. They are trying to figure out what a sanctuary county is," Xu said. "You have to think about the language barrier. How do you even explain what a sanctuary county is to someone who doesn't have a grasp of the language?"
A forum called in response to a series of racist social media postings by Howard County high school students grew tense Saturday over what many said were hidden racial inequalities in the diverse community known for the slogan "Choose Civility."
In the wake of the presidential election and reports of racially-charged incidents at county schools, Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman is launching a series of community conversations to push community dialogue and reinforce the county's commitment to inclusiveness.
The council will hear public testimony at its regular public hearing on Tuesday, Jan. 17.
Roughly 300 cities and jurisdictions throughout the county are considered "sanctuary" cities, but no legal definition about the implication of the designation on local law enforcement's day-to-day activities has been established.
The county is governed by a Democrat-majority council and a Republican county executive, Allan Kittleman. Kittleman has remained silent on the issue as the county's staff examine the legal implications of the bill, according to county spokespersons.
As a state senator in 2011, Kittleman voted against a bill that would allow undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition rates at Maryland community colleges.
The council could vote on the legislation as early as Monday, Feb. 6. To sign-up to testify at the public hearing at 7 p.m. on Jan. 17, go to https://apps.howardcountymd.gov/otestimony. Registration is not required.