About 200 opponents of the sheriff’s actions gathered with homemade pupusas, a mariachi band and a Democratic congressman who offered aphorisms from the Founding Fathers. A few blocks away, a similar number of Jenkins supporters hoisted American flags of every size and offered booming chants of “USA! USA! USA!”
The demonstrations, in a fast-changing city of 71,000 about 50 miles from Washington, were the latest example of local jurisdictions clashing over whether to cooperate with federal immigration agencies as the Trump administration diverts billions to fund a border wall and slashes the cap on refugees.
“People are having a visceral reaction to the divisiveness of the nation,” Frederick County Council President M.C. Keegan-Ayer (D) said last week. “It’s tearing our county apart.”
In Baker’s Park, surrounded by yellow police tape and more than two dozen officers, protesters praised the agreement forged by Jenkins 11 years ago, which allows federal agencies to call on local law enforcement officials to enforce immigration-related orders. The program has led to the deportation of more than 1,500 Frederick residents, authorities say, the vast majority undocumented.
Speakers included Thomas Homan, former acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and Dan Stein, president of the Washington-based Federation for American Immigration Reform, which supports President Trump’s immigration polices and has been designated as a hate group with links to white supremacists by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
FAIR, a proponent of restricting immigration, disputes the characterization that it is a hate group. And the SPLC has been criticized for including a wide swath of conservative activists on its hate list.
There were also women who said their family members had been killed in car accidents caused by undocumented immigrants.
Homan, who received a rock star’s reception as he jogged onto the stage, mentioned Trump more than a dozen times during his speech, nearly always to applause and whistles from the crowd. He praised Jenkins, criticized the hands-off immigration policies of more liberal jurisdictions and said attacks on 287(g) programs are “a pushback against ICE officers who are constantly being vilified by politicians.”
Walking distance away, the RISE Coalition of Western Maryland, in conjunction with the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, hosted a “unity rally,” with the aim of “celebrating [the] immigrant community.” The crowd listened first to local musicians, then to activists from Frederick and beyond.
“Hello Frederick — the real Frederick County,” said Rep. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Md.), whose district includes parts of the county but is anchored in more liberal Montgomery. “We are a people of immigrants. That’s who we are.”
The protests mark a boiling point in a politically tense year for Frederick County, a growing jurisdiction that was once a Republican stronghold but has recently turned more blue. Trump narrowly won the county in 2016. Two years later, Attorney General Brian E. Frosh and U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin, both Democrats, edged ahead of their Republican opponents, and the county council won a Democratic majority.
And while Jenkins successfully fended off Democratic challenger Karl Bickel, the sheriff won with less than 52 percent of the vote, compared with 63 percent in 2014 against the same candidate. Jenkins’ commitment to 287(g), which allows local jails to screen inmates for immigration violations, was a flash point during last year’s election.
In May this year, Jenkins canceled an annual public forum on the program, arguing that attendees in the past had become “disorderly” and “disruptive,” the Frederick News-Post reported. RISE filed a complaint to a state board calling for the meeting to be reinstated.
The group, represented by the ACLU, also sued the sheriff’s office in July, alleging that officers racially profiled Sara Medrano, an undocumented resident who was stopped by police for an alleged broken taillight while driving her daughter and two grandchildren.
According to the complaint, Medrano was questioned about her immigration status and detained for more than an hour, while the officers reportedly attempted to contact ICE. Medrano, who was later allowed to return home, says neither taillight on her vehicle was broken.
“The discriminatory behavior that Ms. Medrano experienced is not an isolated event,” the lawsuit states, citing several other alleged instances of Frederick residents being detained “without reasonable suspicion or probable cause.”
In August, the county council voted to audit the cooperation between the sheriff’s office and ICE, with the aim of examining the cost of their collaboration to taxpayers. Keegan-Ayer, the council president, said the audit is routine, noting that it received bipartisan support in the council. But Jenkins disagreed.
“The audit is entirely unnecessary,” he said in an interview. “The county council and county executive . . . have chosen to listen to a minority of opposition who don’t trust me, don’t like me.”
Adding fuel to the fire are accusations of “outside influence.”
RISE coordinator Juliana Downey said the group decided to organize its rally when members saw the anti-immigrant organization Help Save Maryland, which is based in neighboring Montgomery, seeking support for Jenkins on Facebook.
Jenkins — who was listed as a speaker for an immigration-related protest co-organized by Help Save Maryland last month, but did not attend — denied any involvement in the planning of Sunday’s rally to support him. Homan, however, said while speaking that Jenkins personally asked him to attend.
The permit for the event says it was being hosted by the Republican Club of Frederick County, but current club president Marie Fischer said that the group is
not behind the rally and that former president Mark Schaff filed the application under the club’s name. (Schaff confirmed this.) The club’s board decided not to endorse the event because it felt the speakers’ list lacked racial diversity, said Fischer, who is black.
Downey accused Republicans of trying to dodge responsibility for “bringing outside white supremacists into the county.”
Local officials say they have concerns that parties on both sides are being influenced by external groups, but Sergio España, the director of engagement and mobilization at the ACLU of Maryland, said RISE contacted it, not the other way around.
“The new generation of Frederick residents have more access to information and to other communities,” España said. “They are the folks leading this.”
Local governments in Prince George’s, Fairfax and Montgomery counties recently have curtailed their cooperation with ICE, which already was far more limited than what the 287(g) program entails. In Frederick, any change in cooperation would be up to Jenkins.
Both Keegan-Ayer, the council president, and County Executive Jan Gardner (D) declined to state whether they supported the 287(g) program. They said last week that they would not be attending either rally this Sunday, citing family commitments.
“Our immigration system is broken,” Keegan-Ayer said. “We need to fix it, but that’s not something we can do at a local level.”
Gardner said: “This is a very complicated issue and a lot of it is beyond my authority.” She added that residents with strong views should approach members of Congress or Jenkins himself.
The sheriff showed no sign of budging.
“Listen, they can apply all the pressure they choose to apply,” he said gruffly. “As long as I’m in the position, I won’t change my mind … I’m planting my flag on this hill.”
This story has been updated with a comment from FAIR.