Montgomery Police Seek Tougher Line On Immigrant Status

By Dan Morse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 1, 2009

Montgomery County police are seeking approval to ask suspects arrested for violent crimes and weapons offenses about their immigration status, an about-face in a county whose leaders for years declined to do so even as police agencies elsewhere in the region began aggressive efforts to identify illegal immigrants.

The proposal, developed by Chief J. Thomas Manger and his senior staff, comes after two alleged illegal immigrants were charged in the fatal shooting of a 14-year-old honor student on a county transit bus and after another alleged illegal immigrant was charged in a string of home invasions and the slaying of a 63-year-old Bethesda resident in her home.

"All public officials have been receiving questions from citizens who are asking, 'Why are persons who are in the country illegally or unlawfully allowed to remain?' " said Wayne M. Jerman, an assistant police chief.

Jerman said the policy is not ideologically driven. Rather, he said, police officials see immigration violations as another tool to get dangerous criminals off the streets.

The proposal will not go into effect without the approval of County Executive Isiah Leggett, who once angrily told a crowd that the county is "not in the business of enforcing immigration issues." Through a spokesman, Leggett declined to comment. It is unclear when he will make a decision.

Del. Ana Sol Gutierrez (D-Montgomery) said she and other immigrant advocates have met with Leggett to convey their opposition to the policy change. She said it could lead to racial profiling and constitutional violations.

"What we are saying is: 'Hold it. You may be going down a slippery, slippery slope,' " she said.

From the opposite perspective, the proposal was also criticized yesterday by Brad Botwin, director of Help Save Maryland, a group that advocates stronger local enforcement of immigration laws. Botwin said he thinks police should inquire about immigration status whenever they detain someone for any reason.

The proposal is "not sufficient," he said. "Any time they touch law enforcement, we'd like to know who these people are."

The proposal is being refined, but under a current version, it would kick in when a suspect is arrested in connection with a weapons offense or a violent crime, such as murder, armed robbery, kidnapping, first-degree child abuse, rape or various sex crimes. Jerman said that if the arresting officer thought the suspect was in the country unlawfully, the officer could inquire about immigration status and would be required to refer the matter to federal immigration officials.

As of yesterday, eight of 16 people held in the county jail on murder charges had immigration detainers placed on them, meaning federal authorities might move to deport them after their criminal cases have run their course. Such suspects are not necessarily in the country illegally.

Authorities have said that at least two of the suspects are illegal immigrants whose status went undetected during previous arrests in the county: Gilmar L. Romero and Hector M. Hernandez, alleged gang members charged with first-degree murder in the Nov. 1 shooting death of 14-year-old Tai Lam.

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