By Zach Sparks
The immigration debate got so heated in January that Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman received cellphone calls telling him to “go back to Mexico,” said government affairs officer Peter Baron during a county council meeting on January 22.
Dominating the meeting were two resolutions introduced by Republican Councilman Nathan Volke of Pasadena, who cited public safety concerns. One resolution asked Pittman to reinstate the county’s 287(g) immigration screening program, which former Anne Arundel County Executive Steve Schuh initiated in 2017 and Pittman ended in December 2018. The other resolution urged the county executive to not use federal funds for the legal representation of county detainees.
Both resolutions failed 4-3, with votes cast along party lines, but not before county officials spoke and 55 people testified during the public hearing.
Volke formed his opinion after consulting Sheriff Jim Fredericks and visiting a detention center to ask correctional officers about 287(g).
“An individual who has been held in the detention center, at least according to Sheriff Fredericks, they would have already been charged with a crime, arrested and had an initial appearance before a court officer to determine if probable cause existed for the arrest,” Volke said. “It’s not as though people are being rounded up or asked for their papers or in some shape or form being shoved into jail under a pretense to then be able to determine their immigration status.”
Through the program, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) trained local officers to find and report undocumented immigrants who, as Volke mentioned, had already been arrested for other crimes. In each instance, a potential violator was flagged by Anne Arundel personnel, a regional ICE officer was contacted, and then that agent would determine if the person was subject to deportation.
From December 4 when Pittman ceased the program to mid-January, ICE was notified of 13 potential violators who were all released before ICE could arrive, Volke said.
Councilwoman Jessica Haire, a Republican from Edgewater, said 193 people were screened as part of 287(g) and charged with a crime independent of their immigration status.
“Of those 193 people, 69 of them were here without authorization. Of those 69, over half were charged with a violent crime, and as we heard, that did not include those charged with DUI or DWI,” she said.
Bill Martin, acting superintendent for the Department of Detention Facilities, emphasized throughout the hearing that he believed 287(g) placed more strain on his correctional officers. The criminal alien program that was already in place for 14 years, he said, utilizes the same process: jail-booking information, jail database information, Live Scan fingerprint information and booking records with identifiers.
“The only real difference is that correctional officers under 287(g) were doing the work of ICE federal agents. That’s it,” Martin said. “I have 45 correctional officer vacancies, and yet there was another added duty, responsibility and potential liability to a staff that is currently working at least one overtime shift per six-day cycle and oftentimes two overtime shifts per cycle.”
Baron noted that only two other Maryland counties, Frederick and Harford, use 287(g). A third jurisdiction, Cecil County, is set to adopt the program.
Harford County sheriff Jeff Gahler testified that 287(g) has helped reduce crime in his area since law enforcement implemented it in 2016.
“I fear that with Anne Arundel County eliminating this important federal partnership, it will send the wrong message to our local jurisdictions, our area,” Gahler said.
Members of the community were civil but passionate when speaking about 287(g). Rebecca Forte of Severna Park likened the resolutions to federal grandstanding, wasting time on federal issues instead of local issues like overdevelopment, schools and roads.
David Zwald, also of Severna Park, wondered how the money Pittman pledged to defend immigrants could instead be used on Pittman’s campaign promises to raise the salaries of teachers, police officers and firefighters.
The youngest speaker was Severna Park Middle School student Ella Moulsdale, who researched studies cited by the New York Times and the Cato Institute.
“As you all should know, immigrants commit far fewer crimes than native-born citizens,” Moulsdale said. “… 287(g) does not keep our communities safer. It instills fear in immigrants who are simply trying to have a better life.”
Glen Burnie resident Concepcion Morales shared his perspective as an immigrant who has lived in Anne Arundel County for 18 years.
“The 287(g) program has stirred fears of racial profiling and worries among immigrant people,” Morales said. “It will prevent [the] immigrant community from calling police in times of need because [they] won’t trust police. And it would make the immigrant communities vulnerable.”
But District 5 Councilwoman Amanda Fiedler, who appreciated “compelling arguments” from people on both sides of the issue, said, “The police department does not go into homes searching for illegal immigrants. There are no raids remotely similar to this.”
Even if the one resolution did pass, it would have no legal weight to force Pittman to reinstate the program. Martin hopes the conversation is over.
“The Department of Detention Facilities, we got it wrong,” he said. “We attempted to fix something that wasn’t broken. We have now returned to what has been successful for 14 years, the criminal alien program, and the work is again being done by the right people: federal ICE agents.”
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