Frederick County Sheriff Chuck Jenkins, who’s walked tall as Mr. Law and Order in Maryland for six years, is showing signs of stumbling.
Celebrated by supporters as the scourge of illegal immigrants, the lawman receives standing ovations at conservative gatherings. But he’s starting to face pushback for his embrace of a federal program that has led to the deportation of large numbers of Frederick Latinos caught without papers after being arrested only for driving without a license.
A local church-led coalition has started to campaign against Frederick’s policy, which is among the strictest in the nation. The group says the policy breaks up families and that deportation should be reserved for those guilty of more serious crimes.
“We’re concerned about the plight of immigrants, regardless of their [legal] status. We want this to be a place where immigrants feel welcome,” said George Sisson, a Roman Catholic deacon who was part of a delegation that met with Jenkins (R) on Friday.
In addition, Maryland passed a law this year granting illegal immigrants the right to get driver’s licenses. That could effectively remove one of Jenkins’s principal tools.
Before this year, Jenkins was best known in Frederick for the crackdown on illegal immigrants. But recently, his office has been getting attention mainly because of controversy over whether his deputies acted irresponsibly in a pair of unrelated incidents in January that left young men dead.
In one, a 26-year-old with Down syndrome died of asphyxiation after an altercation with off-duty deputies at a movie theater.
In the other, a grand jury is looking at whether deputies were justified in shooting and killing a 19-year-old while executing a surprise search warrant.
The developments suggest that Jenkins’s style of aggressive policing, which has proved popular in right-leaning Frederick, could be losing some luster.
Moreover, a pro-immigrant shift in public sentiment elsewhere seems to be leaving behind both Jenkins and Frederick, which has a law making English the county’s official language.
Maryland voters easily passed a referendum last year granting in-state tuition to undocu-mented college students. And the U.S. Senate just passed a bipartisan bill creating a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.
The Frederick Immigration Coalition, formed originally to support the tuition measure, is now turning its attention to the deportation issue.
It wants to improve conditions for the county’s Salvadoran, Mexican and other immigrants, many of whom live in Frederick city’s western outskirts. Most of the undocumented ones are paid low wages in such areas as construction, restaurant work and housecleaning.
The question has gained prominence mainly because Jenkins has made Frederick the only county in Maryland to sign up for a federal program, called 287(g), that makes it easier to identify illegal immigrants to deport.
In Frederick, the program has empowered local authorities to inquire about the immigration status of people arrested and taken to the local jail. If the detainee is in the country illegally, then he or she is referred to federal authorities for possible deportation.
Many other counties usually finger people that way only if the suspects are arrested for such felonies as homicide, burglary and drug offenses.
Frederick has a lower bar. Of more than 900 detainees funneled to the immigration authorities from 2008 to 2011, about 90 percent were originally picked up for misdemeanors.
The most common offense, by far, was driving without a license or other traffic violations, according to local immigration lawyers and a study by the Migration Policy Institute.
“It is inhumane and devastating when a family breadwinner with no criminal history is detained and deported for minor charges,” said Tony Naranjo, who owns a tax firm with many immigrant clients.
“The damage these detentions cause far outweighs the benefits to the community,” he said.
Efforts to arrange an interview with Jenkins last week were unsuccessful, but participants in Friday’s meeting said he strongly defended his policies and was renewing the 287(g) program.
“He believes that’s what the people of Frederick elected him for — to be tough on law enforcement,” Sisson said.
Given his strong base in the county, Jenkins could well ride out his current difficulties.
But given how views are evolving on immigrants, he’ll find himself increasingly at odds with the rest of the state and nation.
For previous Robert McCartney columns, go to washingtonpost.com/mccartney.