FREDERICK – National attention and heavy political criticism aren’t burdens that quiet, rural Frederick County often has to bear.
Yet the county is becoming notorious as Maryland’s most aggressive combatant in the widespread struggle over immigration enforcement.
How did Frederick arrive at its unlikely place in the spotlight? For answers, it’s best to start with the work of two local men, both named Jenkins.
“What I’ve seen happen here in Frederick County … are some increases in crime that can be attributed directly to the lack of immigration enforcement across the country,” Frederick County Sheriff Chuck Jenkins said in a recent interview. “When you look at the trends that we are seeing across the West and the Southwest in regard to the types of crime, the criminal element, that’s coming into our country through our southern borders, you have to know it’s coming this way.”
That’s the reason Jenkins, elected sheriff in 2006, said he decided to enroll his police in the 287(g) federal immigration enforcement program, which trains local officers to act as field agents of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Frederick County deputies can now check the immigration status of anyone arrested for any crime.
Only 67 police forces of the thousands nationwide have enrolled in 287(g) since its creation in 1996; Frederick County is the only force in Maryland to have done so.
Even the Frederick City Police, a separate law enforcement agency, have so far passed on the controversial program. Chief Kim C. Dine said local police have no role in enforcing federal immigration laws.
“That’s not what we do,” he said. “Same as if you get pulled over driving home tonight, nobody’s going to ask if you paid your taxes.”
Overall, immigration has played a more significant role in the county’s growth in recent years. From 2000-2008, 6.3 percent of Frederick’s population growth was attributable to immigration, according to Census Bureau statistics. But for 2007-2008, immigration accounted for 14.5 percent of its population growth, the sixth-highest proportion among Maryland counties.
Jenkins, a 19-year veteran of the County Sheriff’s Office, said he began researching 287(g) before winning office because he knew that it was “one of the things I wanted to get involved in” given the chance.
He’s not the only Frederick official, or even the only Jenkins, to take a hard line against illegal immigration.
“When the 14th Amendment and due process was made law, we weren’t dealing with the problems we’re seeing today,” said County Commissioner Charles A. Jenkins of the Constitutional provision that children born in the United States are automatically U.S. citizens. “If I could just wave my hand, I’d change that, too.”
Commissioner Jenkins (no relation to the sheriff) has proposed or backed measures including denying county services to people who could not prove legal immigration status, adopting English as the official language of Frederick County government, and recently, requiring public school students to disclose their immigration status for a county-wide tally.
“My aim is to support programs … that make Frederick County a less attractive place for folks who entered the country illegally to call home,” Commissioner Jenkins said in a telephone interview. “Unfortunately my attempts at the local level have failed.”
Unlike the sheriff, Commissioner Jenkins must run his ideas past a five-person board, and so far he has been in the minority. Or, as he puts it, “My own board didn’t have the stomach to say yes to some of these proposals.”
But there is evidence that even reluctant officials in other parts of Maryland are feeling pressured to take a more aggressive stance on illegal immigration.
Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett announced a new policy in February that 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.
Montgomery stopped short of implementing the 287(g) program.
“Our views is really that the feds have to get their act together, and simply substituting local law enforcement to enforce federal immigration law would take away from what the police mission is in Montgomery County,” Leggett spokesman Patrick Lacefield said of the program.
Sheriff Jenkins argues that the real reason 287(g) hasn’t gained statewide support is because of Maryland’s political leanings. He said his constituents support the program because they are frustrated and “want something done.”
Jenkins could test that support in 2010, when he comes up for reelection.
“When you look historically at the inaction on the immigration problem, it tells you that no one’s interested in fighting the problem,” he said. “Well, I am. We are going to be on the forefront here in Frederick County.”