Attitudes Shift on Illegal Residents
Sunday, January 11, 2009
For years, mainstream Montgomery County has been generally accepting of illegal immigrants, and county leaders followed suit, pledging not to enforce immigration laws even as police agencies elsewhere in the region began to do so.
But public sentiment appears to be shifting in Montgomery, driven less by ideology than by alarm over rising crime and the recent slayings of a 14-year-old honor student on a county transit bus and a 63-year-old woman in her Bethesda home.
"People who are very, very tolerant want to see some changes," said County Council member Marc Elrich (D-At Large), one of five council members who said in interviews that public opinion has shifted in recent months.
Elrich said crime has "really hit home" even in his neighborhood of Takoma Park, a city that since 1985 has officially refused to identify or report undocumented immigrants.
Mariana Cordier, who grew up in the county and is a past president of the Maryland Hispanic Bar Association, said residents are increasingly linking crime to illegal immigration.
"It's been slow to come to Montgomery County," she said of that perception, "but it has arrived."
Police Chief J. Thomas Manger is developing a proposal to have county police officers check the immigration status of suspects arrested for violent crimes and weapons offenses.
"I wouldn't have gone for it a year ago," Bethesda resident Judy Campbell said recently, leaving a natural food co-op in Takoma Park with soy milk and a slice of vegan double-chocolate fudge cake. "Until this series of violent crimes, it wasn't on my radar screen."
Campbell, a 50-year-old nurse, is an avowed liberal. She thinks illegal immigrants deserve publicly funded health care. She once voted for Dennis Kucinich. And for the upcoming inauguration, she plans to participate in Chant4Change, an event that bills itself as a gathering for "conscious revolutionaries."
But she supports the chief's efforts, in part because the emerging proposal is not as far-reaching as policies that have been enacted in Prince William and Frederick counties.
Some officials, including County Executive Isiah Leggett (D), say they have detected no major shift in public sentiment. Leggett, who in the past has said Montgomery should not be in the business of enforcing immigration laws, would have to approve the proposal before it could take effect.
Opponents hope to persuade him to reject the idea, which they say would result in racial or ethnic profiling that could ensnare innocent people. State Del. Ana Sol Gutierrez (D-Montgomery) and other opponents said residents would reject the proposal if they understood its consequences more fully.