Attitudes Shift on Illegal Residents

Dan Morse and Ann E. Marimow, Washington Post, January 11, 2009

For years, mainstream Montgomery County has been generally accepting of illegal immigrants, and county leaders followed suit, pledging not to enforce immigration laws even as police agencies elsewhere in the region began to do so.

But public sentiment appears to be shifting in Montgomery, driven less by ideology than by alarm over rising crime and the recent slayings of a 14-year-old honor student on a county transit bus and a 63-year-old woman in her Bethesda home.

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Elrich [County Council member Marc Elrich (D-At Large)] said crime has “really hit home” even in his neighborhood of Takoma Park, a city that since 1985 has officially refused to identify or report undocumented immigrants.

Mariana Cordier, who grew up in the county and is a past president of the Maryland Hispanic Bar Association, said residents are increasingly linking crime to illegal immigration.

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Police Chief J. Thomas Manger is developing a proposal to have county police officers check the immigration status of suspects arrested for violent crimes and weapons offenses.

“I wouldn’t have gone for it a year ago,” Bethesda resident Judy Campbell said recently, leaving a natural food co-op in Takoma Park with soy milk and a slice of vegan double-chocolate fudge cake. “Until this series of violent crimes, it wasn’t on my radar screen.”

Campbell, a 50-year-old nurse, is an avowed liberal. She thinks illegal immigrants deserve publicly funded health care. {snip}

But she supports the chief’s efforts, in part because the emerging proposal is not as far-reaching as policies that have been enacted in Prince William and Frederick counties.

Some officials, including County Executive Isiah Leggett (D), say they have detected no major shift in public sentiment. Leggett, who in the past has said Montgomery should not be in the business of enforcing immigration laws, would have to approve the proposal before it could take effect.

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The proposal is a departure from past practice for a police agency that has cultivated relations with immigrant communities. The department has long taken the position that delving into immigration matters could jeopardize cooperation from crime victims and witnesses, undermining public safety.

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Until recently, concern in Montgomery over illegal immigration focused chiefly on opposition to a county plan to open a day-laborer center in Gaithersburg.

But when illegal immigrants were charged in the two killings, one of which police linked to a series of home invasions, the issue found a wider audience, said Rene Sandler, a Rockville defense attorney.

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Serious crime is up 7.7 percent in Montgomery, a trend driven by increases in home and car break-ins across the county. Police acknowledge that they do not know how much of that increase, if any, is attributable to illegal immigrants.

As of a week ago, eight of 16 people held in the county jail on murder charges had immigration detainers placed on them, meaning federal authorities might move to deport them after their criminal cases have run their course. Such suspects are not necessarily in the country illegally.

Police officials, however, have said two of the suspects–alleged gang members accused in the Nov. 1 shooting death of 14-year-old Tai Lam–are illegal immigrants whose status went undetected during previous arrests in the county.

“People in the mainstream are saying, ‘Wow, we could have had this person and we didn’t. What could have been done differently?’ ” said council member Michael Knapp (D-Upcounty).

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As a practical matter, Gutierrez said, officers could not determine which suspects to question without engaging in profiling. She said officers would also need to become familiar with the complex terrain of immigration matters, including more than 100 types of visas.

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Currently, when Montgomery officers detain a suspect, they run a routine check for outstanding warrants. If the check turns up a warrant from immigration officials, federal authorities are notified.

Some jurisdictions are far more aggressive. Prince William drew national attention in 2007 by proposing that officers check the immigration status of those detained, even for such minor infractions as speeding, if they thought the detainees might be in the country illegally. The county backed off that approach but requires that officers ask about the status of everyone they place under arrest.

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