As Nora drove to work one cold January morning, smoke began billowing from the engine.
In minutes, flames engulfed the car, putting the Baltimore resident into a panic, as described by her daughter. Nora pleaded with a tow truck driver not to call the police for fear of alerting U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, but Maryland Transportation Authority Police did show up that day.
Now, she’s in the Worcester County Detention Center awaiting deportation to El Salvador — but hoping she can return to her Southwest Baltimore home with her three kids.
Nora, who has an asylum case pending, is one of many immigrants prompting advocates to push for statewide legislation that would limit the role Maryland authorities have in enforcing federal immigration laws, citing a danger to public safety and a violation of constitutional rights.
Del. David Moon, a Montgomery County Democrat, brought up one of these bills for discussion Tuesday at a House Judiciary Committee hearing in Annapolis.
“Today it was us, but tomorrow it can be another family,” said Nora’s 20-year-old daughter Aidha.
Nora’s attorney, Raymond O. Griffith, requested that The Baltimore Sun not publish the last names of his client or her family members.
Nicholas Katz, a Baltimore immigration lawyer, said that without a formal partnership with ICE, or a criminal arrest warrant signed by a judge, Maryland law enforcement agencies don’t have the authority to question, arrest or hold someone they suspect has violated federal immigration laws.
However, immigration advocates say agencies are cooperating with ICE because of ambiguous and conflicting policies that vary by agency and their jurisdictions.
Nora is among a number of unauthorized immigrants in Maryland without criminal records who have been detained following encounters with police, whether it’s to report a crime or during a traffic stop. Immigration advocates say this raises questions about racial profiling and the legality of such arrests.
Nationwide non-criminal arrests more than doubled in two years — from about 9,086 in 2016 to 20,464 in 2018. In Maryland, the number grew by 146 percent in two years — from 155 non-criminal arrests in 2016 to 382 arrests in 2018.
Immediately following the 2016 presidential election, CASA, an advocacy organization for Latino and Immigrant people in Maryland, saw an uptick in cases where ICE was relying on local jurisdictions to carry out detentions, said Elizabeth Alex, the group’s senior director of organizing and leadership.
This trend drove CASA to advocate for legislation that would ensure local and state resources aren’t being used for federal immigration enforcement, said Alex.
Senate Bill 0817 and House Bill 0913, introduced this session, would prohibit state and local law enforcement agencies from arresting people on civil arrest warrants issued by ICE and from inquiring about a person’s immigration status.
The proposed measures also would prevent correctional officers from supplying ICE the address of a person released from jail and their time of release; however, they would not restrict ICE from accessing this information.
The bills have the support of the Maryland Legislative Latino Caucus and Black Caucus.
Del. David Fraser-Hidalgo, a Montgomery County Democrat, former police officer and co-sponsor of HB 0913, said passing a statewide law would “help build some level of trust between local law enforcement and the communities they have sworn to serve and protect.”
Fraser-Hidalgo, chair of the General Assembly Latino Caucus, argues there’s a threat to public safety because people are less likely to call the police to report crimes or cooperate in investigations for fear of deportation, leaving crimes in the community unsolved.
In Nora’s case, a judge issued her a deportation order in 2002 — as is common when someone misses their immigration court date, said Katz, senior manager of CASA’s legal program.
“You can’t be detained without probable cause that you committed a crime,” Katz said. “Everyone in the United States has that right, regardless of your immigration status.”
The deportation order led ICE to issue a civil arrest warrant, also known as an administrative warrant, for Nora. These ICE-issued documents direct other federal agents to arrest someone based on immigration violations, such as overstaying a visa or not leaving the country after a deportation order is issued.
On that January morning, Nora was detained by a Maryland Transportation Authority Police officer after her information was run through a federal database, according to Cpl. Edward Bartlinski, a department spokesperson.
Police dispatch told the officer that ICE confirmed there was an active warrant for her arrest but didn’t mention the warrant was administrative and not criminal, leading the officer to detain Nora, contrary to MDTA Police’s training guidelines, Bartlinski said.
ICE spokeswoman Justine M. Whelan said Nora was arrested as part of “routine enforcement operations.”
After inquiries from The Baltimore Sun about Nora’s arrest, the MDTA Police said they “are reviewing existing policy and training procedures so the direction is clear no one is to be detained without confirmation of a criminal warrant.”
Nora was on edge the day her borrowed car broke down because of an encounter with Baltimore police in December when she reported her car was stolen.
The Baltimore officer contacted ICE, not knowing her warrant was a civil warrant and not a criminal one. ICE told the officer it wasn’t coming out because Nora was the victim of a crime, said Matt Jablow, a city police spokesman.
But Aidha said ICE agents showed up that day but were unable to arrest her mother because she ran into her home.
ICE declined to comment on the specifics of this incident, Nora’s eventual arrest and the legislation.
After hearing of Nora’s experience, CASA began meeting with Mayor Catherine Pugh to clarify existing policies in the city and with acting Police Commissioner Michael Harrison to ensure there is sufficient training for officers to follow correct procedures.
Baltimore police have no policies regarding cooperation with ICE; however, Jablow said, that might change soon.
In the coming weeks, Mayor Pugh’s office will announce a new executive order that would ensure city employees do not discriminate against individuals based on immigration status, said Catalina Rodriguez Lima, the director of the Mayor's Office of Immigrant Affairs.
“Mayor Pugh believes it's important to remind employees about the nature of our city being a welcoming city regardless of immigration status, so they can come forward and report crimes,” Lima said.
Aidha said she believes this initial encounter with city police put her mom on ICE’s radar.
Amada Armenta, an expert on immigration enforcement and criminal justice systems, said database-sharing among law enforcement agencies may expose people to federal immigration authorities.
“Because of the ways that immigration enforcement and criminal justice processes are entangled, it’s impossible to police people without possibly contributing to their deportation,” Armenta said.
Armenta said “non-cooperation” policies certainly help but don’t guarantee arrests will not happen.
California, Connecticut, Illinois, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington have enacted laws limiting police cooperation with ICE. Meanwhile, Iowa, North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia have passed legislation requiring law enforcement to assist immigration authorities, according to the Pew Research Center.
Republican Del. Kathy Szeliga, who represents parts of Baltimore and Harford counties, argues that laws restricting police cooperation with ICE place “dangerous criminals” back on the streets.
“This is homicides, murder, human trafficking, sex trafficking of a minor, forced labor trafficking,” Szeliga said. “These are people that are from Uzbekistan, Guatemala, El Salvador. These are people from all over. If law enforcement is gonna keep us safe, let them keep us safe.”
While ICE did arrest some for such crimes, agency data show the majority of its criminal arrests in 2017 and 2018 were for DUIs, followed by “dangerous drugs.”
Szeliga cited the case of a 19-year-old who allegedly stole a police AR-15 rifle and brought it to school in his car. Montgomery County Police did not honor ICE’s detainer request, as is their policy, and the teen was released after posting his bond.
Federal immigration officials use detainer requests to ask state and local law enforcement agencies to hold a person for up to 48 hours until immigration agents can detain the person.
Absent an explicit agreement with ICE, such as the programs established with the sheriff’s offices in Harford and Frederick Counties, law enforcement agencies are not required to hold someone for ICE unless there is a warrant signed by a judge.
These partnerships provide an invaluable tool to enhance public safety, according to an ICE spokesperson.
Harford County sheriff’s spokeswoman Cristie Hopkins said the bills would endanger the county’s program. Sheriff Jeffrey R. Gahler has testified against both bills.
Moon said his bill would not affect such existing programs. He said the bill was meant to prevent local and state law enforcement from acting on someone’s immigration status without having a warrant signed by a judge.
Since her mother’s detention, Aidha has taken on the responsibility of caring for her 14-year-old brother and 8-year-old sister in addition to her son, placing a strain on her financially, Aidha wrote in a GoFundMe she created for the family.
Nora’s son Emanuel is confused about why his mom was arrested instead of the person who stole his mom’s car, he said.
“What happened with my mom,” he said, “the cops should have helped her.”