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Mayor promises 'welcoming' city for immigrants

Rachel Baye

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake promised on Thursday that immigrants will continue to be welcome in Charm City, and that the city police will not be actively checking immigration status.

The promises were a reaction to President-elect Donald Trump’s proposed immigration policies and could cost Baltimore some of its federal funding.

Rawlings-Blake joins mayors of cities such as San Francisco, Chicago and New York who have also promised in the days since the election to protect undocumented immigrants.

Trump has threatened to withhold federal funds from cities that are lenient on illegal immigration, calling them Sanctuary Cities.

But at a press conference Thursday, Rawlings-Blake took issue with the characterization of Baltimore as a “sanctuary city.”

“In order to be a sanctuary city, the city has to be in control of Central Booking, which we are not, so we don’t have that jurisdiction,” she said. “So we are a welcoming city, which is different from a sanctuary city, which would potentially put us in jeopardy of losing federal funds.”

In other words, because the state controls the Baltimore Central Booking and Intake Center, where someone goes when he or she is arrested, the city is not responsible for what happens afterward.

"Usually when people are talking about a sanctuary city, they're talking about a city in which the police department and other law enforcement entities don't cooperate in a variety of ways with [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] or other immigration enforcement,” said Maureen Sweeney, a professor specializing in immigration law at the University of Maryland School of Law.

When a state or city arrests someone, it usually shares the person’s fingerprints with the FBI, which in turn shares it with the Department of Homeland Security, the parent agency for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, she said. ICE can then issue what’s known as a detainer, “a piece of paper that is a request to the local jurisdiction to notify the feds when the person is ready to be released and/or to hold onto them for an additional short period of time so that DHS can come and pick them up.”

Jurisdictions that don’t honor these detainers are considered sanctuaries.

In Baltimore, whether they are honored is up to the governor.

"Gov. [Martin] O'Malley had a strong policy in place saying that the jail wasn't going to transfer anybody to ICE custody unless ICE presented them with a warrant of arrest, like an actual warrant signed by a judge,” recalled civil rights and immigration attorney Sirine Shebaya.

However, one of the first things Gov. Larry Hogan did when taking office in 2015 was to begin letting ICE agents know when an undocumented immigrant is being released from jail.

Despite this limitation on Baltimore’s powers, Trump’s transition team has so far relied on a fairly broad definition of sanctuary city.

“It kind of remains to be seen whether that threat of funding comes to pass and who it comes to pass against,” Shebaya said. “Certainly it seems like the kind of thing that Baltimore City is at risk for.”

The protections that a sanctuary city or a “welcoming” city like Baltimore provides are also limited.

“Federal immigration enforcement authorities like ICE, which Trump has said he's going to triple, can actually go to people's homes, and that's something that has happened with some frequency even in sanctuary cities,” Shebaya said. “The only thing that I think the sanctuary cities are really doing is they're saying, as state and local authorities, we're not going to involve ourselves in this.”

Trump’s policies won’t be clear until after he’s sworn in, and that uncertainty terrifies Anabel Dominguez.

More than a decade ago, Dominguez left her home in Mexico and illegally crossed the border, leaving her 4-year-old son behind. Six years ago, she was reunited with her son after he, too, crossed the border — alone.

Dominguez and her husband now have a second son, born in the United States. He’s 16. They have lived in Baltimore for 11 years.

Until now she has felt safe in the city, she said. But she doesn’t know what life will be like during the new Trump administration, or how the people around her will react.

On Thursday, Rawlings-Blake’s office released a guide with tips for immigrants like Dominguez. Among the advice: “Do not panic.”

Rachel Baye is a senior reporter and editor in WYPR's newsroom. @RachelBaye
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