Vote fails to overturn veto of bill to codify protections for immigrants in Howard County

An attempt to reaffirm protections for undocumented immigrants died Monday night in Howard County when local lawmakers failed to nix Republican County Executive Allan Kittleman's veto of a controversial bill that ignited a microcosm of the national debate on immigration in the wealthy suburban jurisdiction.

Lawmakers last month had dropped a reference from the bill that labeled the county as a "sanctuary" for undocumented immigrants, and also removed broad sections of political language in the bill that stated President Donald Trump had bolstered dangerous xenophobia, Islamophobia and racism.


Sanctuary cities rocketed to the forefront of the national immigration debate earlier this year whenTrump sign an executive order to strip sanctuaries of federal funding.

Three of the council's four Democrats voted to override the measure. County Council Chairman Jon Weinstein, a Democrat, and Councilman Greg Fox, a Republican, voted against the bill.


Democratic council members Calvin Ball and Jen Terrasa, who had introduced the bill, lamented the council's 3-2 vote Monday, just one vote shy of overriding the veto, but urged supporters to support the Maryland Trust Act, a move before the General Assembly that affirms protections for immigrants.

Capping weeks of contentious debate intensified by President Donald Trump's executive orders on immigration, Howard County lawmakers voted 3-2 in favor of legislation to make the county a sanctuary for undocumented immigrants — without formally adopting the label of "sanctuary."

After the vote, a cry by Frank Mirabile, who led a group opposing the bill, erupted from the packed audience.

"Off to the State House, let's get this shut down, too," Mirabile said.

Weeks before the council's initial vote on the bill, Kittleman pledged to veto it, saying the bill "caused rifts" within the county. Kittleman also criticized the sponsors for "hastily" filing legislation that attempted to codify protections in a county with no identified problems between police or county staff and residents on the basis of immigration status.

Terrasa called Kittleman's veto "ill-advised" and "premature."

"The national events over the last weeks… make it clear that now more than ever we need [this bill]," Terrasa said.

Opponents denounced the measure as a solution in search of a problem.

"There could be a lot of good reasons to take this to referendum to put this on the ballot," Fox said. "However I think it's time for us to put all [the] politics that this started with behind us."

Weinstein said the measure does little to address undocumented immigrants' fear and complicates the county's relationships with the community.

"I continue to be disturbed by what's going on at the federal level and I continue to work with key stakeholders locally on a practical level," Weinstein said.

Howard County Police Chief Gary Gardner had also opposed the bill, which he said would compromise public safety and threaten federal funding. The measure, which limits the county's cooperation with federal immigration authorities, attempted to bar local law enforcement from gathering information on the immigration status of residents.

The bill drew hundreds at packed public hearings earlier this year and sparked a colorful array of arguments that spanned the ideological spectrum.


Supporters said the measure was a courageous response for undocumented immigrants living in fear of Trump's presidency, which has included moves to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico to limit illegal immigration and a broad travel ban released Monday. Opponents argued the measure unfairly favored undocumented immigrants and placed an undue and unjustified beacon on the county that would attract crime.

Through a spokesman, Kittleman declined to comment on the vote.

In other votes on Monday, the council backed Kittleman's plan to replace the county's courthouse in Ellicott City with a new $139 million project on county-owned land on Bendix Road in Columbia.

Sigaty was the only council member to vote against the proposal, saying she was "quite uncertain" how the project would affect the county's other capital projects.

The project is the first courthouse in the state to be funded through a public-private partnership. The county has not determined plans for the old courthouse site, but Kittleman said he looks forward to attracting a permanent use for the building.

A microcosm of the national immigration debate flared in Howard County's packed government chambers Tuesday night as more than 500 community members staked a divided stand on a bill that would label Howard County as a "sanctuary" for undocumented immigrants.

"Right now, this is a facility that is closed on weekends. There is opportunity there for something big," Kittleman said.

Sigaty hoped to table the move until she reviewed how it would impact Kittleman's capital budget, which is due to the council next month.

In a 3-2 vote, the council killed a move by Kittleman to allow a maximum of roughly 215 residences on 1,615 acres of farmland in the western parts of the county.

Kittleman said the move was essential to restoring property rights farmers "lost" when a 2012 state law required the county to develop a tiers map that limited development on land with septic systems, in order to protect the Chesapeake Bay.

The tiers map designates development patterns, with Tier 1 having the highest amount of residential development because it is dependent on public sewers, and Tier 4, an area for agricultural preservation and resource protection, having no development.

After months of heated debate, the council passed a map in 2013, but Kittleman said that move stripped some farmers of their property rights. The proposal affects about 1.7 percent of land in the west, according to the county's Department of Planning and Zoning.

Council members Sigaty and Ball said the bill opened up an issue the council worked hard to address several years ago.

"We've had this conversation back in 2013," Ball said.

Fox expressed surprise at the council's vote, adding that the council approved a similar measure before then-County Executive Ken Ulman vetoed their proposal.

But another farming bill by Kittleman to deter nuisance lawsuits against farmers passed unanimously. His bill calls on the court to require plaintiffs to cover legal costs during civil suits when the court determines the farming operation is not a nuisance by law.

After Monday night's vote, seven new buses will join Howard County's fixed route bus fleet. The $2.5 million purchase enters the county into a 10-year, lease-to-purchase agreement, which adds buses to a regional transit system that covers parts of Prince George's County, Anne Arundel County and the city of Laurel.

Recommended on Baltimore Sun