In a nearly five-hour-long session emblazoned with passion and temper, local lawmakers Monday night waded through the impact of labeling Howard County as a "sanctuary" for undocumented immigrants.
The issue has drawn divisive and contentious debate over the last two weeks. Interruptions from the audience, most notably opponents who have staked a vocal presence in the discussion, continued during the meetings. On Monday, County Council Chairman Jon Weinstein threatened at least twice to remove disruptive members of the audience.
Introduced by Council members Jen Terrasa and Calvin Ball, both Democrats, the bill formally declares local law enforcement and county employees will not voluntarily help federal employees enforce federal immigration law, which is, by law, a function of the federal government. Local law enforcement can still work with federal agencies to address criminal activity or suspected criminal activity. Much of the impact of the bill is blunted by a clause that nullifies the bill if it conflicts with state and federal law or existing agreements between the county and federal, state or local agencies.
Despite broad exemptions, representatives from the police department said the bill would limit the department's ability to protect the community.
Howard County Police Chief Gary Gardner said the bill bars county police from giving Immigrations and Customs Enforcement information about undocumented immigrants who are gang members and have not committed a crime.
"Documented and undocumented immigrants would not want that individual in the community," Gardner said.
The bill prevents local police officers from standing by when ICE comes into the county for a deportation raid. ICE contacts jurisdictions for information on the locality and the individuals under question for background information before conducting the operation, Gardner said. The presence of local police is vital in that situation to avoid dangerous situations, he said.
Garder affirmed the county does not carry out federal immigration law. For example, the police department is not obligated to hold undocumented immigrants when they appear on a file that tracks individuals deported by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement for aggravated felonies. If the police department encounters that individual on a traffic stop or field encounter, ICE has 10 minutes to respond. If ICE fails to respond, the police department will release the individual.
All criminal investigations with criminal warrants of undocumented immigrants are handled like any other case, he said.
Marty Johnson, a retired police officer, said information-sharing between federal, state and local agencies, especially involving violations of immigration law, is vital to preventing terrorist attacks. Johnson noted that at least five individuals involved with the 9/11 attacks passed through Howard County.
"This takes ones of the tools out of the police tool box to stop the terrorist act before it happens," Johnson said.
Dave Crawford, former Laurel police chief, said the bill attempts to codify the police department's behavior as if it is "running amuck."
But proponents argued the sanctuary label is not an attack on local law enforcement. Instead, the label detangles local police officers from the federal enforcement of immigrant law and sends a clear message to undocumented immigrants that Howard County is a welcoming environment where local law enforcement can be trusted; a message, proponents said, undocumented immigrants living in fear and uncertainty because of the current political climate need to hear.
Jill Bussey, an attorney with the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, an advocacy organization that calls for "generous" immigration policies, said the Trump administration is relying on expertise from advocacy groups like the Center for Immigration Studies and the Federation for American Immigration, both of which favor restrictions on legal and illegal immigration. A representative from FAIR testified at the work session, saying undocumented immigration results in a major financial blow to the country and taxpaying, law-abiding citizens.
"There's a complete lack of engagement … and the policies that have so far have been represented are quite real to the people that could be impacted," Bussey said, speaking as an individual.
"The pressure is going to come here to the localities … policies could change very quickly," she added.
On Monday, President Donald Trump delayed plans to "immediately terminate" a program, called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, that shields more than 742,000 undocumented immigrants who came to the country as a children. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer told reporters Trump's priority on immigration is deporting people who pose a public safety threat.
Documenting existing policies through a label of sanctuary would help alleviate very real fears that exist in the community, said Hector Garcia, executive director of Foreign-born Information Referral Network, a local organization that works with immigrants. "There's a reason why the people that we're talking about are not here tonight," he said.
FIRN estimates there are around 11,000 undocumented immigrants in Howard County.
Bussey said the sanctuary label was a vital "symbolic step" in acknowledging undocumented immigrants' fears that will be tested with the new administration in the White House.
"This isn't projective. It's not speculative. It's a current mechanism that is going on," Bussey said, addressing Councilman Greg Fox's concern the bill is a solution in search of a problem that has yet to surface.
Fox, a Republican, is against the bill. Outreach programs for the undocumented community could be used to tackle fear, he said, instead of enacting legislation that could compromise federal funding and community safety, including the safety of undocumented immigrants the bill seeks to protect.
"Heck, we've been trying to figure out what you're trying to resolve from this bill," Fox said.
Fox noted that undocumented students testified before the Council last week in a room where opponents and police officers were present, pointing to what he sees as the superfluous nature of the bill.
Terrasa said Fox's observation was "unconscionable."
"They were scared to death to be here … it was a very intimidating situation here," Terrasa said, applauding the students' bravery.
Prompted by what she called "disturbing" testimony the Council received, Councilwoman Mary Kay Sigaty asked leaders from advocacy organizations like FIRN and CASA de Maryland to detail the everyday struggles of undocumented immigrants "so that we know we are talking about real people that live among us."
Opponents of the bill, who interrupted the session where public testimony is not heard, shot back, "We're real people, too." Weinstein threatened to clear the room.
Garcia of FIRN said many undocumented immigrants pay taxes without receiving significant returns and that a path to citizenship is not guaranteed, easy or attainable.
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Weinstein said the discussion was evidence of a broken immigration system.
"Federal government has simply failed in addressing this problem for decades now," Weinstein said.
Sue Payne, an invited guest and co-founder of Citizens Above Party, alleged CASA de Maryland, a Latino and immigration advocacy organization based in Maryland, had ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, the late Hugo Chavez, created gangs and ruined schools - remarks Weinstein attempted to curtail. Payne said the bill unfairly favors undocumented immigrants who "don't want their lives" and "want your lives" while disregarding the concerns of tax-paying citizens.
In response to testimony that Council members were "oath breakers," Sigaty concluded the meeting by asking the county's legal advisers if the Council was violating its oath of office or the U.S. constitution if it chose to pass the bill.
Gary Kuc, the county's legal advisor, said the passage of the bill does not violate the council members' oath of office or the U.S. constitution. Kuc also stated only the federal government has the authority and power to enforce federal immigration law.
Sigaty said the Council faces a key policy question: Should the county pass a bill that codifies its existing practices or is what the county already does good enough?
The Council could vote on the bill at its voting session on Feb. 6. Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman, a Republican, promised to veto the bill. A 4-1 vote can override the veto.