The city of College Park, the Washington suburb that is home to the University of Maryland’s flagship campus, postponed a vote Tuesday on whether to extend municipal voting rights to noncitizens while it weighs whether to hold a referendum and let voters decide.
The City Council had been expected to vote on whether noncitizens would be allowed to participate in the city’s November election but opted to wait until its Sept. 12 meeting to decide.
The measure comes as leaders in some of Prince George’s County’s more liberal-leaning jurisdictions and in neighboring Montgomery County struggle to create policies that protect undocumented immigrants without getting in the crosshairs of the Trump administration.
Trump has threatened to withhold federal funding from cities and towns that refuse to cooperate with immigration authorities. And discussions surrounding undocumented immigrants and immigration increasingly are creating friction in many communities.
On Tuesday, Prince George’s police were asked to attend the meeting in College Park after council members received harassing calls and emails from people angry about the amendment, Mayor Patrick Wojahn said.
Police spokeswoman Jennifer Donelan said the department’s homeland security office is investigating the threats.
No threats were made during Tuesday’s meeting, but it was clear the community is divided on the issue.
Larry Provost, a 38-year-old veteran who served one tour in Iraq and two in Afghanistan, was among several residents who spoke at the meeting against College Park’s proposed charter amendment, saying it “threatens to dilute the meaning of citizenship in our country.”
“I feel it’s very disrespectful to immigrants and people who work hard to come into this country,” said Provost, whose 15-year-old son, Konstantin, became an American citizen 10 days ago, nearly a year after he was adopted from Latvia.
College Park would be the third city in Prince George’s County — and the largest — to allow green-card holders, undocumented immigrants and student-visa holders to vote in municipal elections, following Hyattsville and Mount Rainier.
In Montgomery County, Takoma Park, Barnesville, Garrett Park, Glen Echo, Martin’s Additions and Somerset have also expanded voting rights to noncitizens.
About 20 percent of College Park’s 32,275 residents are foreign-born, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. The University of Maryland campus, with more than 27,000 undergraduates, has about 3,600 international students.
Olivia Delaplaine, a junior studying government and Arabic at U-Md., told the council that she supports the amendment because she wants her friends and professors — who she said have a variety of immigration statuses — to have a voice in the community.
“These are people who live here and who are affected by decisions this council makes,” said Delaplaine, who grew up in Bethesda. She said it is especially important for local government leaders to act now because of the “hatred at the national level” being directed toward immigrants.
Maryland’s General Assembly this year fiercely debated a bill, known as the Trust Act, that would have limited police cooperation with federal immigration enforcement efforts. The bill — which U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said would make Maryland “more at risk for violence” — faltered in the state Senate, fueling tension between Maryland progressives and the Democratic establishment.
“This is a difficult time on the national stage, so this amendment sends a strong message that College Park celebrates its diversity,” said Julio Murillo, a policy analyst at the immigration advocacy organization CASA de Maryland, which has pushed the state and individual jurisdictions to affirm protections for undocumented immigrants.
Wojahn and the council proposed noncitizen voting by introducing the amendment to the city’s charter on June 13.
The amendment would allow the city clerk to keep a list of registered voters separate from the one maintained by the Prince George’s County Board of Elections, which must comply with Maryland’s voter registration qualifications — one of which is U.S. citizenship.
To vote, noncitizens would have to be College Park residents, at least 18 on or before the date of the next city election, and not registered to vote in another jurisdiction. They would not be eligible if they are serving a prison sentence for a felony, are under guardianship for a mental disability and unable to communicate a desire to vote, or if they have been convicted of buying or selling votes.
The majority of College Park residents who wrote to the council about the amendment after a July 11 public hearing opposed expanding voting rights, according to correspondence included in the agenda for Tuesday’s meeting.
But the impact of expanding voting rights in local elections to non-U.S. citizens has been minimal, according to a letter signed by advocacy groups including Hyattsville Area Residents for Progress, Showing Up for Racial Justice and Takoma Park Mobilization.
In Hyattsville, 33 city-only voters registered for the local elections in May — the first since the amendment passed in December — and only 12 actually voted, according to the letter. In Mount Rainier, only 20 non-U.S. citizens registered to vote.