Howard County Executive Allan H. Kittleman (R) said Tuesday that he will veto a hotly debated bill affirming protections for undocumented immigrants, despite an amendment that dropped a reference to the Maryland suburb as a “sanctuary” community.
The term, which in general refers to jurisdictions that do not cooperate with U.S. immigration authorities, has drawn renewed attention since the election of President Trump (R), who has vowed to deny federal funding to sanctuary communities.
Kittleman denounced the legislation last month as a hollow political gesture, which he said purported to address a problem that does not exist in the affluent county halfway between the District and Baltimore.
On Tuesday, he said his view of the measure, passed by the County Council on a 3-to-2 vote Monday evening, had not changed.
The council would need four votes to override the veto.
“The bill offers a false sense of security to undocumented immigrants, compromises public safety efforts and puts us at risk for losing critical federal funding,” Kittleman said at a late afternoon news conference.
Kittleman’s announcement capped a month of emotionally charged discussion about a bill that opponents and supporters agree would only codify practices already followed by Howard police and county government.
The measure prohibits local law enforcement from gathering information on the immigration status of victims or witnesses. It also limits cooperation with federal authorities on immigration matters.
Kittleman said no such law had been passed by any other Maryland county or Baltimore city. But proponents said codification of those principles is more important than ever since the election of Trump, whose early executive actions on a southern border wall and a broad travel ban have spawned fear and uncertainty in immigrant communities nationwide
Advocates said those fears are keenly felt in Howard, the nation’s third-wealthiest county by household income ($108,000, just behind Loudoun and Fairfax counties).
Immigrant groups promised that the fight for the legislation will continue, and said they would lobby Council Chairman Jon Weinstein (D), who voted against the legislation, to change his position and support an override.
“This is not going to end,” said Elizabeth Alex, regional director of CASA Baltimore, an advocacy group. “People will continue to be involved and continue to fight.”
The legislation, as introduced in December by council members Calvin B. Ball (D) and Jennifer R. Terrasa (D), called for the designation of Howard as an immigrant “sanctuary,” a legally vague but politically incendiary term.
Howard Police Chief Gary Gardner opposed the sanctuary label, contending that it could jeopardize federal funding and limit what he called “critical” assistance from Immigration and Customs Enforcement on drug and gang cases.
In response, Ball and Terrasa agreed to amendments, including one that stripped the word “sanctuary” from the bill. Instead, it calls for the county “not to discriminate on the basis of immigration status.”
Alex said loss of the word “sanctuary” was not consequential. “That’s just atmosphere. The substance of the bill is the same, if not legally stronger,” she said.
Ball said the bill still puts police and other county employees on notice that enforcement of federal immigration law is not their concern.
“At the end of the day, our interest is to ensure that we have given a voice to the voiceless,” Ball said after the meeting.” Using the word ‘sanctuary’ was not material to that goal.”
The hallway outside the council chamber was packed 90 minutes before the hearing Monday night, with green-shirted supporters of the bill demonstrating next to opponents carrying red-and-white “NO” signs.
As proponents sang “We Shall Overcome” and “This Land Is Your Land,” critics of the legislation shouted “Lawbreakers!” and recited the Pledge of Allegiance. Both sides packed the 200-seat room.
The final outcome was in doubt until the end.
When Weinstein and Gregory Fox (R) voted no, it came down to council member Mary Kay Sigaty (D), an artist and former teacher who made it clear that she didn’t want to be the deciding vote on such a divisive measure.
“Ultimately, here I am tonight, wishing that I wasn’t, wishing that I didn’t have to make this decision, “ Sigaty said. “Because in doing that, it means there will be winners and losers, and in that we all lose.”
“But I am who I am. My life experiences have led many places . . . so, in fact tonight, I will be voting yes.”
There was an audible gasp from the crowd, which filed out quietly.
“I’m disappointed that it passed,” said Bill Hanrahan, a retired NASA employee. “Why do we need a bill that divides the county?”
Shahan Rizvi, former president of the Howard County Muslim Council, said: “It’s a symbolic bill. It isn’t going to change federal laws. But it calls for tolerance. I have had a lot of people come up to me in tears and in anger.”