Shortly after 9 a.m. last Thursday, a 14-year-old girl was raped by two fellow students in a boy's bathroom at Rockville High School in Montgomery County, according to police. The two young men accused of the crime, Jose O. Montano, 17, and Henry E. Sanchez-Milian, 18, were charged as adults with first-degree rape and first-degree sexual offense.
The alleged crime is heinous, of course, but the arrest by the county's Special Victims Investigation Division was swift and cooperation by the school system immediate and full, local officials report. Over the weekend, Superintendent Jack R. Smith sent out a message to the community expressing support for the victim and assuring students, parents and others in the community that school security is a top priority.
Unfortunately, the crime now seems to be bringing out the worst kind of demagoguery from public officials who should know better. Bad enough that Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, elevated the case to national news by identifying it at his press briefing Tuesday as an example of why President Donald Trump supports a "crackdown" on illegal immigration. Now, Gov. Larry Hogan has likewise joined the fray, similarly drawing attention to the perpetrators' immigration status and using the incident to oppose legislation pending in Annapolis that would limit the ability of Maryland police to detain individuals solely on suspicion that they are undocumented.
For the record, the two suspects in the Rockville incident are undocumented immigrants, but what does that have to do with their crime? Public schools are required under federal law to provide a public education to all children regardless of legal status. There was no apparent failure to cooperate with authorities or any connection of the suspects to foreign gangs (a common talking point within the anti-immigration crowd). Nor was this the first example of a sexual assault taking place in a public school in Maryland. In 2013, a 14-year-old was allegedly raped by a 17-year-old junior at Wilde Lake High School, and a 14-year-old at Arundel Senior High was charged with sexually assaulting a classmate in a school bathroom in 2012; neither of the alleged perpetrators was an immigrant.
Count us with all the parents and community members who are outraged at these attacks in schools and would like to see fewer of them. But the vast majority of violent crimes in Maryland — and elsewhere in the United States — aren't being committed by undocumented immigrants. As studies have repeatedly shown, more crimes are committed per capita by non-immigrants than by recent arrivals. And the more local police get involved in arresting immigrants based only on their legal status, the less cooperation police are going to get from the immigrant community.
And what happens when a community believes it can't trust police? That distrust inevitably translates to higher crime rates, and society's predators take advantage of those who have no way to fight back. Baltimore is a case in point as the murder rate has risen post-Freddie Gray. The sad reality is that too many people in the city's most dangerous neighborhoods are reluctant to cooperate with authorities — and those aren't even illegal immigrants but U.S. citizens, so the fear of deportation isn't even part of the equation.
It's particularly disappointing to hear this kind of race-baiting come from Mr. Hogan who has, on other issues, been willing to detach himself from President Trump's hateful strain of nativism. Would the Rockville case be preying on his mind (he's posted multiple references to it — including press accounts of his reaction to it — on his Facebook page) if the suspects were Northern European? This is shaping up as another Willie Horton moment for the GOP and a chance to stir racial fears of the "other" within our communities.
Meanwhile, the legislation the governor has promised to veto, House Bill 1362, might actually go a long way toward restoring community trust in local police agencies within the minority community given President Trump's unwillingness to set more sensible immigration enforcement priorities. Local police need not become ICE agents. As demonstrated by the recent episode in Bel Air in which police questioned the legal status of Aravinda Pillalamarri, a U.S. citizen and a resident of the town for 30 years, merely because her skin was brown, such efforts don't make communities safer, they simply make them more hostile to people who aren't white.