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Baltimore County Council to consider immigration screenings at county jail

Baltimore County is the latest local jurisdiction wading into the heated issue of immigration policy, with a public hearing scheduled Tuesday on a bill that would call for screening county jail inmates for immigration violations.

The County Council's three Republican members have proposed the measure requiring the county to join a federal program that trains correctional officers in basic immigration enforcement. After Tuesday's hearing in Towson, the council could vote on the bill June 5.

Opponents of the bill — including the immigrant-rights group CASA, Jews United for Justice, the Council on American Islamic Relations and the American Civil Liberties Union — are planning a rally in Towson's Patriot Plaza before the hearing. Local chapters of the "Indivisible" movement that formed in response to President Donald Trump's election victory also say they will be there.

Meanwhile, the libertarian group Campaign for Liberty has been encouraging supporters to email Democrats on the council to urge their support for the bill. Another group, Help Save Maryland, which is opposed to illegal immigration, is urging its members to attend the hearing.

The council work session and public hearing will be held at 2 p.m. Tuesday in the Historic Courthouse in Towson. Councilman Todd Crandell, a Dundalk Republican and the bill's lead sponsor, knows the debate could be heated, and said he hopes for "a level of decorum that would suit the council chambers."

The bill would require the county jail to participate in the federal immigration screening program known as 287(g). Jails in Frederick and Harford counties are the only ones in Maryland currently participating in the program, though Anne Arundel County is seeking to join.

In Frederick and Harford, those booked into the county jail are asked about their citizenship and country of birth, and answers to those questions can trigger further review by trained sheriff's deputies. An agent from Immigration and Customs Enforcement makes the final determination whether to refer the individual into immigration proceedings.

Supporters say the program is an easy and inexpensive way for local government to help enforce immigration law. Opponents argue it's inappropriate for local jails to get involved in a federal issue.

Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh issued guidance this month noting that while it's permissible for counties to join the 287(g) program, the federal government doesn't necessarily pay for all of the costs. And he cautioned that the programs have the potential to open the door to illegal racial profiling.

Crandell called the program a "reasonable and measured program," and said he's concerned some people are swayed by "rhetoric and some anecdotal things that aren't relative to what the actual program is."

Cathy McErlean, a member of the Indivisible Towson group, said her problems with the Baltimore County bill range from its potential cost to taxpayers to the possibility it could erode trust between immigrants and law enforcement. She hopes council members will focus on the policy flaws in the bill.

"I think there's a lot of emotion tied up in this. I hope that people will learn something from each other," she said.

Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz has pledged to veto the bill if it passes the council. He plans to attend Tuesday's rally against the measure.

On Friday, Kamenetz's campaign office sent out an email accusing the Republican councilmen of "trying to infect our state with Trumpism. But that's not who we are as Marylanders."

Kamenetz, a Democrat, is considering a run for governor. Last month he signed an executive order emphasizing an existing county policy not to ask people about their immigration status and not to hold people in jail past their release date for immigration reasons — unless federal officials present a warrant signed by a judge.

The council's three Republicans are outnumbered by the four Democrats on the council. Four votes would be needed to pass the bill — and five to override Kamenetz's promised veto.

Crandell said he'll press for a vote on the measure even if he can't persuade Democrats to support it.

"I fully intend to take it to a vote," he said. "I think it would be a disservice to the citizens of Baltimore County not to put it to a vote."

pwood@baltsun.com

twitter.com/pwoodreporter

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