Maryland’s largest immigrant advocacy group plans to push for legislation in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties that affirms protections for undocumented immigrants, a measure similar to one that spawned a bitter debate and executive veto in Howard County this week.
Gustavo Torres, executive director of CASA de Maryland, told a meeting of immigrant advocacy groups Wednesday that he wants county law to reflect longtime practices in the two liberal and ethnically diverse suburbs, which generally limit collaboration by police and corrections personnel with federal deportation authorities.
New statutes are needed, he said, as President Trump attempts to crack down on undocumented immigrants nationwide.
“We want to keep Montgomery as a welcoming county,” said Torres, announcing that he planned to speak with County Council members next week. “We want to clarify and send a very strong message that all agencies in Montgomery County are not going to collaborate with this administration.”
Torres’s plan represents a potentially significant escalation of state and local resistance to a Trump executive order that lays the groundwork for denying federal funding to “sanctuary” communities.
CASA and other advocates are working with state lawmakers to pass the Trust Act, which is based on a California measure and would bar police and sheriff’s departments, for example, from complying with federal requests to hold undocumented prisoners beyond their release date.
But the outlook for the bill, sponsored by state Sen. Victor R. Ramirez (D-Prince George’s), is uncertain. It has yet to be filed in the House of Delegates, although Del. Marice I. Morales (D-Montgomery) has said she will sponsor the proposal.
Gov. Larry Hogan (R) has signaled little interest in limiting the reach of federal immigration enforcement. Shortly after taking office in 2014, he reversed the policy of his Democratic predecessor, Martin O’Malley, and agreed to notify U.S. authorities when an undocumented immigrant targeted for deportation was released from the state-run Baltimore city jail.
Torres said the political environment at the state level makes it all the more important that similar legislation be pursued in local jurisdictions.
“We don’t know if the governor is going to sign this,” he said.
He vowed that his group will put pressure on cities and counties with the strongest records of protecting immigrant populations from federal law enforcement.
That strategy fell short this week in Howard. County Executive Allen H. Kittleman (R) on Thursday vetoed legislation approved 3 to 2 by the County Council that would have codified policies that bar police from asking about immigration status of criminal suspects, victims or witnesses.
Despite amendments that softened the bill’s language — excluding a declaration, for example, of Howard as a “sanctuary” jurisdiction, a legally vague but politically volatile term — Kittleman called the legislation an empty gesture offering only “a false sense of security” to undocumented immigrants. He said the county’s established police and corrections practices provide more than adequate protection.
Officials in Montgomery and Prince George’s also express confidence that existing policies need not be codified into law — as well as concern that doing so could place them in the crosshairs of Trump’s attempts to cut off federal funding.
Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) has repeatedly assured immigrant groups that they have nothing to fear from local law enforcement, and that what he calls the “Montgomery way,” a body of policies and practices emphasizing tolerance and understanding, will not falter.
At a news conference outside the immigration meeting at the Silver Spring Civic Center, Leggett said he wasn’t convinced of the need for a new law.
“I don’t see the necessity at this point in time,” he said. “I’m not saying we may not get to that point . . . but I don’t think that we’re there yet.”
Montgomery police operate under a 2009 departmental directive that bars officers from “indiscriminate questioning” about citizenship or immigration status. Any arrest must be based on state or local charges.
The directive permits Montgomery officers to assist Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents in cases involving drugs, money laundering, human trafficking or terrorism, but not violations of federal immigration law.
“We’ve been at this for a very long time,” Leggett said.
Council member Nancy Navarro (D-Mid-County) agreed with Leggett that, for the moment at least, no legislation is needed.
“We have a very strong track record in Montgomery. I feel comfortable where we are right now,” Navarro said. “But we have to evaluate as this progresses.”
In his comments to the group, Torres pointed to council member Hans Riemer (D-At Large) as a potential sponsor of the type of legislation he was describing. “Thank you very much, Hans,” he said.
Riemer said later that it was the first he’d heard of the idea. But he said he would consider it. “Some people are afraid to have us put our heads up,” he said. “I don’t think you can avoid standing up.”
Scott Peterson, a spokesman for Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D), directed questions Thursday to Baker’s previous statements, which mirror Leggett’s.
County policy “didn’t change under President Obama and is not changing under President Trump,” Baker said in Annapolis on Jan. 25. “We believe the county is following the law, and we’re going to honor that.”
Torres said both counties can do better.
“Our job is to educate them,” he said.
Josh Hicks contributed to this report.