Takoma Park Stays Immigrant 'Sanctuary'

By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Takoma Park council voted unanimously last night to reaffirm the town's status as a "sanctuary city" where police and other municipal employees are forbidden from enforcing federal immigration laws, an action members say is meant to set the community pointedly apart from localities roiled by the illegal immigration debate.

It comes two weeks after they turned down a request by the police chief for more flexibility in executing immigration warrants for possible deported felons.

"I hope it comes out very clearly that Takoma Park is going in the opposite direction as some of these other communities," Mayor Kathy Porter said.

In recent months, a handful of local jurisdictions have taken action against illegal immigrants. Prince William County, for example, has authorized its police force to check the immigration status of certain crime suspects and has voted, along with Loudoun County, to curtail government services to illegal immigrants. Herndon has closed a day-laborer center used by many immigrants.

Takoma Park has long been known for its independent stands. In the past, it has declared itself a nuclear-free zone, and earlier this year, the council voted to call for the impeachment of President Bush and Vice President Cheney. The town also allows residents who are not U.S. citizens to vote in municipal elections.

The flurry of activity on immigration was sparked this year when a Guatemalan man was deported after a traffic stop by Takoma Park police. An immigration warrant for the man showed up on the National Crime Information Center database, and the officer contacted federal authorities, not knowing that the city's sanctuary law prohibited him from doing so.

The law was originally passed in 1985, but immigration warrants were added to the crime database only in 2002.

Takoma Park Police Chief Ronald Ricucci, who took over the department in February, instituted rules to keep his officers in compliance with town law. But he also asked the council to loosen restrictions for one particular category of illegal immigrant: those who were once convicted of violent felonies and were deported after serving their sentences.

To check for such violators, Ricucci asked that his officers be allowed to follow up on the database hits with a call to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). If the warrant was for an ordinary immigration violation, police would go no further and let the person go. If it was for a deported violent felon, they would detain him for federal authorities.

"It's very rare," Ricucci said. "We've only gotten three ICE hits this year out of hundreds of checks we make a day. But I thought it was my duty to bring it up."

Ricucci said he had positive meetings on the issue with council members and the advocacy group CASA of Maryland, whose objections focused on the reported unreliability of the federal crime database and with the importance of not fraying the immigrant community's trust in the police. The request turned into a discussion on Takoma Park's commitment to its sanctuary law.

A series of hearings in recent weeks featured often emotional testimony, frequently from residents who see the law as central to the town's reputation as a hub of social and political activism.

Takoma Park "is a sanctuary for me against what is going on in this country," said resident Jenny Hughes at an Oct. 15 hearing. "I have always been proud of the fact that our city is a place where I can feel not just physically safe but politically safe."

The few residents who spoke in favor of the change said the chief should be granted the powers he sought.

"We want police enforcement. We want law enforcement," Steve Davies said. "But this guy comes in and tries to propose something to protect officers and the public, and you're not agreeing with him."

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