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Sanctuary Bill Returns To Maryland General Assembly

Gregory Bull
AP Photo

The General Assembly is again this year taking up legislation that would make Maryland a sanctuary state. The controversial bill, which is scheduled for a hearing Wednesday before the House Judiciary Committee, is designed to protect undocumented immigrants from being reported to federal immigration authorities after interactions with police.

The legislature has considered iterations of the proposal at least as far back as 2014. None has had great success, and the bills have often languished in committee. But as lawmakers grapple with broader changes to policing, advocates hope the bill finally sees some success. During a hearing on the Senate version of the bill in January, Claudia Ramos, an immigrant from El Salvador who has lived in Maryland since 2005, said the measure could help people like her feel safe.


Two years ago, Ramos was driving in Hyattsville, her three kids in the car, when she was rear-ended. The police came, took the drivers’ information, then let the other two cars involved in the accident leave. But not Ramos.


Instead, the police detained her for an hour and a half, until Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, showed up. 


Ramos, who is from El Salvador and has lived in Maryland since 2005, said ICE took her to Baltimore, where she was held for the day before being released. 


Ramos told the state Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee that she is still fighting her deportation case.


“This experience with the police has not only traumatized me, but has also traumatized my children,” she said through a translator.


The bill before the legislature would prohibit state and local police from asking someone their immigration status or detaining them while they investigate their status. Police would also be prohibited from holding someone based solely on a request from ICE, known as a “detainer” request.


“It really shouldn't be controversial because it's really about public safety,” said Del. Wanika Fisher, the Montgomery County Democrat sponsoring the House version. “It's about folks in our community, regardless of status, reporting crimes, testifying in court, feeling comfortable in our schools, in our courthouses, in our hospitals and the like.”


However, like most bills that deal with issues related to undocumented immigrants, the legislation has been consistently controversial every time it comes before lawmakers.


During this year’s hearing on the Senate version of the bill, the sheriffs from Frederick and Harford counties opposed a provision that would end the counties’ partnerships with ICE, including the 287(g) program in the counties’ jails. 


“Since 2008, this program has been very effective — removing 1,582 criminals from our streets, placing them in removal proceedings. One hundred eleven of those were validated criminal gang members, mostly affiliated with MS-13,” said Frederick County Sheriff Charles Jenkins. “This program has kept our streets safer.”


Sen. Robert Cassilly, a Republican from Harford County, said the bill would prevent police from capturing dangerous criminals. 


He described a scenario in which a suspected gang member enters the United States illegally. Law enforcement are unable to obtain a judicial warrant for his arrest because they lack sufficient evidence. The gang member is arrested on a minor gun charge but is released because the police don’t honor ICE’s detainer request. 


However, a November study by a political scientist at Stanford University found that sanctuary policies like the one under consideration have had no measurable impact on crime in the cities and counties that have already passed them. 


Fisher, a former prosecutor, said her bill would help reduce crime rates by encouraging immigrants to report crimes and to show up to court to testify as witnesses.


“Me being a first-generation American myself, an immigrant myself, you know, this affects my community, and I don't want crime unchecked,” she said. “When people don't show up to court, there is nothing to prosecute.”


Fisher said the bill isn’t just about undocumented immigrants, but also about green card holders, like her parents were.


“ICE enforcement deals with people with legal statuses every day,” Fisher said. “At any time, your position of being in a country can feel vulnerable, and so I know until my parents naturalized in my early teenage years, they were immigrants with U.S. citizen children.”


Senate Judicial Proceedings Chair Will Smith, the sponsor of the Senate version of the bill, said he expects the measure to pass out of his committee and go before the full Senate for a vote this year. 


Smith said his latest whip count shows that the bill has enough support to pass the full Senate, too, though his goal is to get the 29 votes necessary to override a hypothetical gubernatorial veto.


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