Frederick's Uneasy Crackdown

By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 13, 2008

In the six months since the Frederick County Sheriff's Office began working closely with federal immigration authorities, 183 illegal immigrants have been identified, detained and put on track for deportation, a crackdown that has spooked the area's Latino community and provoked accusations by rights groups of ethnic profiling.

Sheriff Chuck Jenkins, the first law enforcement official in Maryland to sign a cooperative agreement with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said that since April, about 9 percent of all people arrested and taken to the county detention center have proven to be illegal immigrants. He called those results a success and said he has been flooded with calls from officials in other counties and states who want to follow suit.

"The word is out on the street: If you are in this country illegally and you plan to commit a crime, don't do it in Frederick County," Jenkins said last week. "We're at the forefront of things. We are finding gang members and people with criminal histories. I'm very pleased, and I believe 90 percent of the people in this county support this."

Jenkins's opponents, however, said the crackdown has done little but panic the local immigrant population. Hispanic and civil rights groups in Frederick said that county officers have used questionable pretexts to stop cars driven by Latinos and check their identities and that most of those arrested have been working people whose only serious crime was to have entered the United States without permission.

"Is the sheriff's mandate to catch illegal immigrants or to make sure the community is safe?" asked Guy Djoken, who heads the county's NAACP chapter. "The problem of illegal immigration has to be addressed at a national level. We are all against crime, but we cannot stand by while the police are profiling and arresting people who have done nothing."

Under the program, local law enforcement agencies can sign a formal agreement with ICE, which provides training for police and correctional officers in enforcing immigration laws. ICE agents are placed in local detention centers to question and process detained immigrants for deportation. Before April, the county detention center did not have the resources to verify the identities of detained immigrants.

Residents of Frederick, a diverse and fast-growing area that includes dairy farmers and high-tech professionals, rifle clubs and artsy boutiques, expressed a mixture of approval and unease about the program. Several complained that the influx of poor Latino immigrants, whose number has tripled to 15,000 since 1990, has led to unkempt, overcrowded neighborhoods and burdens on public schools.

Others said they viewed illegal immigration as a pressing national problem but did not see it as harming their area. Steve Coffin, 52, a medical assistant, said that the Hispanics in his neighborhood "seem like nice people and hard workers" but that illegal immigration must be stopped. "There has to be some equity," he said. "If we give the illegals amnesty, it will just encourage others to come."

In several Latino enclaves along Route 40, residents said this summer's arrests have spawned a variety of related problems. Hispanic leaders said immigrants have reported being afraid to drive, have been threatened with eviction or robbed of earnings they were reluctant to put in the bank, or been afraid to call police after traffic accidents.

Also, rumors have been circulating that public schools may identify and expel children whose families are in the country illegally. The reports stem from the revival of a proposal to count the number of illegal-immigrant schoolchildren as a way to measure their education costs. That proposal was voted down by the county commissioners in June, but its original sponsors, backed by Jenkins, are seeking to have it introduced in the state legislature.

"We hear they want to do a census of illegal children. That is unfair, and it makes people very worried," said Iris Sanabria, 35, who manages a Latino food store. "They don't know if the police will stop them on the street or take their children out of school. A lot of Latinos came here because no one bothered them, but now that has changed."

An especially contentious issue is whether police are engaging in ethnic profiling, such as by singling out Latino drivers for minor infractions and then asking for identification. Lawyers at CASA of Maryland, an advocacy group, said they had spoken with 49 illegal immigrants detained in Frederick since April and a majority reported being stopped by police for such offenses as not properly displaying their license plates.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company