The Baltimore State's Attorney's Office has instructed prosecutors to think twice before charging illegal immigrants with minor, non-violent crimes in response to stepped up immigration enforcement by the Trump administration.
Chief Deputy State's Attorney Michael Schatzow, in a memo sent to all staff Thursday and obtained by The Baltimore Sun, wrote that the Justice Department's deportation efforts "have increased the potential collateral consequences to certain immigrants of minor, non-violent criminal conduct."
"In considering the appropriate disposition of a minor, non-violent criminal case, please be certain to consider those potential consequences to the victim, witnesses, and the defendant," Schatzow wrote.
Prosecutors declined to discuss the memo.
Under President Trump, the U.S. Justice Department has made enforcement of immigration laws a priority, with Attorney General Jeff Sessions decrying "filth" brought on by drug cartels and criminal organizations and instructing U.S. attorneys to increase immigration prosecutions.
The Homeland Security Department issued memos in February saying any immigrant in the country illegally who is charged or convicted of any offense, or even suspected of a crime, will now be an enforcement priority.
Elizabeth Alex, a Baltimore regional director for CASA de Maryland, said immigrants and their relatives are afraid to engage in the court process, and Baltimore prosecutors are right to include immigration status as part of their consideration in how to handle a case.
"Prosecutorial discretion exists in all kinds of cases, and it's more education to [prosecutors] about the multiple factors that they should take into consideration as they proceed," she said. "The consequences are different today than they were a year ago."
U.S. Rep. Andy Harris, the lone Republican in Maryland's congressional delegation, said it is "a real shame that the State Attorney's office is unwilling to enforce the law against illegal aliens who commit crimes in the United States."
"A vast majority of Americans believe that illegal aliens who commit crimes while here in the U.S. should bear the full brunt of the law, and be deported," Harris said through a spokesperson.
The Justice Department declined to comment on the Baltimore memo. But in remarks Friday on Long Island, Sessions decried district attorneys who he said "openly brag about not charging cases appropriately – giving special treatment to illegal aliens to ensure these criminal aliens aren't deported from their communities.
"They advertise that they will charge a criminal alien with a lesser offense than presumably they would charge a United States citizen. It baffles me," Sessions said.
The comments appeared to be in response to the acting district attorney in Brooklyn, N.Y., who earlier this week issued similar instruction to prosecutors there. "We must ensure that a conviction, especially for a minor offense, does not lead to unintended and severe consequences like deportation, which can be unfair, tear families apart and destabilize our communities and businesses," Acting District Attorney Eric Gonzalez said in an announcement Monday.
Gonzalez went a step further, hiring two immigration attorneys to train staff on immigration issues and to advise prosecutors when making plea offers and sentencing recommendations "in an effort to avoid disproportionate collateral consequences."
Mayor Catherine E. Pugh, who has sought to reassure immigrants that Baltimore is a "welcoming city" that will not check for proof of citizenship, declined to comment on the State's Attorney's Office memo.
"Mayor Pugh will leave prosecution strategies and tactics to the State's Attorney and her staff," spokesman Anthony McCarthy said in an e-mail.
Baltimore Police said that just as they are not asking for proof of citizenship, they will not take that into account when investigating crime.
"That would put us right back in the situation where we are making a judgment based on someone's immigration status," said spokesman T.J. Smith. "We're not going to do that."
Police Commissioner Kevin Davis has expressed concern about immigrants not reporting crimes or cooperating with investigations because they fear repercussions related to their status, and has attended community meetings stressing that police won't make immigration checks.
Schatzow, in the State's Attorney's Office memo, noted such concerns, saying fear of being deported could "impair our effectiveness in combating violent crimes and criminals."
Alex, of CASA de Maryland, praised Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby for outreach to immigrants, such as increasing bilingual resources for crime victims and testifying in support of the Maryland Trust Act, which would have made it illegal for police to ask for immigration status and prevented jails from holding people suspected of being in the country illegally. The bill failed in the legislature this year.
The Trump administration has targeted so-called "sanctuary cities" for cuts by the federal government, but Pugh says Baltimore is not a sanctuary city because it does not run its own jail and can't make decisions about whether to hold people charged with immigration crimes.
The state prison system complies with some federal immigration orders and requests, though it does not hold immigrants in jail beyond their regular release absent a warrant. Baltimore was not among a list of cities recently warned that they faced cuts in aid due to their policies on immigrants.