County defends federal immigration initiative
NAACP, Casa of Maryland seek meeting to end program
The top spokesman for Prince George's County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) defended the county policy of checking nonviolent offenders against federal databases for immigration violations despite NAACP claims that the initiative is damaging relations with the county's Latino population.
"There may be people out there who are criminals elsewhere," said James Keary, communications director for the executive. "There could be a murderer out there. Who knows?"
Since December, Prince George's has participated in the Secure Communities initiative, a program that allows the fingerprints of those arrested in the county to be shared electronically with the U.S. Office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Keary said the county gives the fingerprints to the state and FBI, who then passes the information to ICE officials.
A protest against the county's involvement in the program was held April 26, after Florinda Faviola Lorenzo-DeSimilian, a married 26-year-old mother of three, was turned over to ICE agents after being arrested April 22 for allegedly selling phone cards without a license from her Langley Park apartment. The Guatemalan native, who said she has been in the U.S. for 10 years, was charged with a misdemeanor, and her fingerprints were flagged because she has allegedly overstayed two visas. A hearing is scheduled in Baltimore later this month.
Civil rights groups and some county lawmakers said the county's six-month-old agreement violates a previous county resolution. In 2003, the County Council passed a resolution which specifically prohibits the county from cooperating with federal immigration officials.
In the resolution, CR 78, the council instructs county law enforcement to "refrain from enforcing immigration matters that are the responsibility of the Department of Homeland Security."
"But that's exactly what happened with this lady," said June White Dillard, president of the NAACP's county chapter. "We are really concerned. We feel this was a breach [of previous policy] by the county government."
County Corrections Director Mary Lou McDonough has declined multiple requests for comment from The Gazette. Dillard said she was told by McDonough that copies of the agreement the jail made with federal officials could not be provided because no formal documents were signed.
Dillard, along with members of the immigrant advocate group Casa of Maryland, said they have asked to meet with the county executive to discuss rescinding the policy. So far, county officials have not responded to those requests, they said.
Keary said the county has no plans to end the program.
"Why?" he asked. "You don't want us to identify criminals in the community?"
ICE officials could not be reached for comment.
The county policy has won support from Help Save Maryland, which advocates for tighter quotas on potential immigrants and a zero-tolerance approach for illegal immigrants.
"We fully support Prince George's County's decision to join Secure Communities," said Brad Botwin, executive director for the group. "We just wish Montgomery County would do the same."
Montgomery County does not participate in the Secure Communities program but does send the names of violent offenders to federal authorities to check for possible immigration violations, said Blanca Kling, a community outreach specialist for the Montgomery County Police Department.
"We have more in common with Montgomery County than we do the counties [that do Secure Communities]," said Councilman Will Campos (D-Dist. 2) of Hyattsville. "If Montgomery County is not doing it, why are we?"
Keary said the Prince George's policy ensures that wanted criminals from other jurisdictions are more likely to be caught since fingerprints are unique to individuals who may give police a fake name.
As of April 1, Prince George's County had turned over 109 people to ICE officials. County officials were unable to provide an updated count and said The Gazette would need to file a Freedom of Information Act request to receive the information.
Prince George's is one of four Maryland jurisdictions that participate in the voluntary screening program. St. Mary's, Frederick and Queen Anne's counties also participate.
The county receives no money for implementing the program, Keary said. But because flagged prisoners are often transferred, the county does save money by not paying to house inmates who are wanted elsewhere, jail officials said.