The Howard County Council’s attempt to turn the community into a “sanctuary” for immigrants and refugees was dealt a setback last week.
County Executive Allan Kittleman on Feb. 9 vetoed a bill to prevent police and other county employees from enforcing federal immigration laws and asking people about their immigration status.
The council, which passed the bill by a 3-2 vote, can override the veto if a fourth member of the council votes in favor of the bill on March 6, when the sanctuary proposal is expected to be raised at a council session.
While many feel the intentions behind the bill are good, it garnered dissent from politicians and prominent members of the community, who derided it as rushed out and incomplete.
“One of my bigger concerns is that the sponsors didn’t do much investigation,” Kittleman said. “They did not contact stakeholders such as the police chief or the corrections department director, nor did they contact major advocates for the foreign-born community,” such as the Foreign-born Information and Referral Network.
“Had they reached out, they would have found there was not a problem [in Howard County],” he said. “If this bill is filed, it gives the impression that police are supporting [federal] immigration laws when they are not.”
Kittleman cited Hector Garcia, a leading immigrant advocate who has worked in Howard County for 17 years, who told the council that he had not heard any complaints from people about how county police treated them regarding immigration status.
The legislators who introduced the bill, however, believe there is cause for concern.
“I was saddened by the county executive’s veto and disheartened that, in his response, he indicated that he didn’t even believe we had a problem,” said Councilman Calvin Ball (D-District 2), “especially after hearing from so many people about their concerns and knowing that with each passing day, the concern grows.”
Ball said the bill was necessary to reaffirm the county’s commitment to inclusion.
“This bill will improve the relationship between police and immigrants because it will prevent [police] from changing their policy to uphold the federal immigration law,” said Councilwoman Jennifer Terrasa (D-District 3), who also helped to introduce the bill.
“When we initially filed the bill, the county executive said that this won’t change anything, that the county police already don’t ask and don’t enforce federal immigration policies,” she said. “But as we all move forward, there is no written policy, so this makes a written policy that immigrants can rely on. If it changes, it will be public, there will have to be a hearing. Unlike a policy, it wouldn’t be able to be changed tomorrow if it is in the legislature.”
Councilman Jon Weinstein (D-District 1), who represents Ellicott City, Elkridge and Hanover, was one of the two naysayers for the bill.
“The bill, even as it was amended and passed, didn’t really do anything but affirm practices already instated. However, it complicates the sensitive relationship between police and immigrants by making it law,” he said in an interview. “Howard County, for all intents and purposes, is akin to a sanctuary. Police and government here would never ask people about immigration policy.”
In a prepared statement, he called the proposed measure “purely symbolic.”
The big problem with the bill is that it does nothing to change how an undocumented immigrant would be treated, said Kittleman.
The community as a whole, however, largely supports having Howard County declared a sanctuary. People Acting Together in Howard (PATH) is a nonpartisan, multifaith and multiracial organization composed of communities and congregations around the county.
“Given the national climate around immigration and the president’s threats to undocumented people, this bill provided an opportunity for our county to stand up and unequivocally declare that it stands behind its residents,” said Jake Cohen, a lead organizer of PATH. “Does the bill solve all of the problems? Of course not. Was it a good first step toward starting a larger conversation? Yes.”
Rabbi Susan Grossman of Beth Shalom Congregation in Columbia is a member of PATH. She said that the Howard County Board of Rabbis is supportive of sanctuary measures to “support the Jewish value of protecting strangers.”
“The bill is not perfect, but it is a good message to send and shows support for the community, especially in this time of political uncertainty for all types of immigrants in our country,” Grossman said. “I know that the effort to have that bill was to respond to concerns voiced.
“I hope that there is an opportunity for the parties to sit down together, look at the concerns and come up with appropriate wording or amendments so we can pass a sanctuary bill.”
Daniel Nozick is a staff reporter for the Baltimore Jewish Times.