WASHINGTON – Maryland members of the Interfaith Immigration Coalition, which came to Capitol Hill Wednesday calling for comprehensive federal reform, criticized Montgomery County’s toughening policy on illegal immigrant crime.
“We are called to act on what we preach, and to show that there are no strangers among us,” said Rev. Joan Carter Rimbach, pastor of the First United Methodist Church of Hyattsville, which hosts a monthly legal clinic on immigration issues. “We’re dealing with human lives here. With individuals and with families.”
Montgomery County’s new criminal policy, announced by County Executive Isiah Leggett Tuesday, calls for “anyone arrested and charged in Montgomery County for crimes of violence” or for illegal handgun possession to be reported to Federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement for an immigration status check. Status questions could prompt deportation.
“This new policy can assist the county in helping to keep violent offenders off the streets,” Leggett’s announcement read. “We can accomplish this without our officers becoming federal immigration police or crossing the line into ‘profiling’ individuals based on their race or ethnicity.”
“We believe that local enforcement of federal immigration laws is a bad idea,” said Kelly O’Brien, a lawyer with the immigrant rights organization CASA of Maryland. O’Brien called Montgomery’s new policy “the lesser of evils” compared with more aggressive measures elsewhere, including Frederick County.
Under a controversial federal enforcement program, Frederick County officers were trained to check the immigration status of anyone who comes in contact with law enforcement. Effectively, that means that connection to any crime, from violent assault to a speeding ticket, could mean deportation proceedings.
Montgomery County’s more limited measures will result in an average of three names per day being reported to ICE, Leggett said.
“We’ve targeted pretty serious offenses,” said Patrick Lacefield, Leggett’s spokesman. “It’s crimes of violence, of which there were about 670 in the county last year. And illegal handguns, of which there were about 500. There were 40,000 crimes in Montgomery County last year, so we’re only talking about 1,100 crimes out of that.”
Leggett opposes ICE training for Montgomery County Police.
Some advocates worry that even limited measures will have a negative impact on the immigrant community.
“I have a number of concerns about that,” said Rev. Peter Schell, assistant pastor at the Episcopal Church of Our Saviour in Silver Spring. “I worry about the effect it has on local law enforcement’s ability to do their job. Undocumented immigrants are already hesitant to cooperate with investigations, and this will not help.”
Advocates on all sides of the immigration debate can agree on at least one thing: Problems with the immigration system need to be fixed federally.
“There’s no question that local communities are really between a rock and a hard place,” Lacefield said. “There’s no serious immigration policy at the federal level, and this is something that obviously the new president is going to have to tackle. If we had the kind of enforcement we needed, coupled with some kind of pathway to citizenship . . . local jurisdictions wouldn’t have to make hard choices.”
“Until the federal government takes responsibility and enacts comprehensive immigration reform, we will continue to see these issues at the local level, even in more progressive communities like Montgomery County.”
The Interfaith Immigration Coalition announced a nationwide campaign of prayer vigils and other events, to begin in February. The group called on President Obama and Congress to prioritize immigration reform in 2009.