Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Housing, raid draw emotions at forum

Residents question county’s policy on illegal immigrants, rent control

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Immigration policy and the state of affordable housing in Montgomery County struck an emotional chord with many of the 300 people crammed into a Silver Spring church for a town hall meeting with County Executive Isiah Leggett.

Leggett (D) spent a few minutes Thursday night talking about the state budget and a $1.5 billion fiscal 2008 deficit before taking questions from the crowd at Woodside United Methodist Church. Residents brought up traffic, ‘‘smart growth,” preservation of parkland and pedestrian safety issues.

However, questions regarding the July 12 raid at El Pollo Rico in Wheaton evoked the most emotion from those in favor of local police involvement with immigration issues and those who felt that Montgomery County Police should not aid the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement in its investigations.

Four owners of El Pollo Rico in Wheaton and several of their workers believed to be undocumented immigrants were arrested July 12 when immigration agents seized money and property from the restaurant and several homes in Montgomery County and Virginia.

Matthew Seubert, a Germantown resident who recently joined the Maryland Minutemen Civil Defense Corps, objected to the county’s support and funding of day laborer centers and thought the situation at El Pollo Rico should indicate that illegal immigration can lead to other criminal activities.

‘‘It is wrong for the county to provide non-emergency social services of any kind to illegal aliens,” he said. ‘‘And it is right for the police to question and detain anyone suspected of being here illegally, and to hand them over to federal authorities for prosecution under our national immigration law.”

But Leggett did not agree and would not reverse his decision to support day laborer centers. He called the centers a temporary fix until immigration reform is handled at the national level.

‘‘I will continue to stand by that decision,” he said.

Later in the town hall meeting, two young girls from Gandhi Brigade, a local youth film group, asked the county executive what he would do to quell fear in immigrants who believe they cannot go to police for help.

‘‘We are not in the business of enforcing immigration laws,” Leggett responded.

Leggett said the investigation into El Pollo Rico was not about immigration, but centered on criminal issues such as money laundering and tax evasion.

Lisa Jaeggi, a member of the Gandhi Brigade, asked Leggett again how he would handle the fear in the immigrant population, regardless of the facts of the investigation. Leggett responded that he felt if one would compare the work of police on a day-to-day basis with what happened with the investigation of El Pollo Rico, the fear of police would be ‘‘unrealistic” or ‘‘not supported by the facts.”

The meeting focused on other community issues as well, including affordable housing.

Shelley Fudge, who spoke on behalf of Progressive Neighbors, an advocacy group focused primarily on affordable housing, said the county needed to set up mandatory rent control rather than set voluntary guidelines.

She would like to see the county put a cap on rent increases, prohibit or restrict condo conversation and assist seniors who are on a fixed income to deal with increased rent, she said.

Leggett was adamant in his opposition to rent control.

‘‘It’s often easy to get around it,” he said about rent control laws. He also said the controls lead to more condominium conversions, something he said he is strongly against.

Residents also brought up some community-specific issues, including parks, development and traffic.

Susan Rich, president of the Connecticut Avenue Estates Civic Association in Wheaton, was concerned about residents in her neighborhood paving lawns to use as parking lots.

‘‘It detracts from the values of our homes and creates an environmental hazard,” she said.

Beverly Sobel of Wheaton spoke on behalf of residents who want to save the green space around The School of Art and Design at Montgomery College. A county Hearing Examiner has granted a builder’s request to rezone the area where the school sits, 10500 Georgia Ave. in Silver Spring, for a townhouse development.

Sobel and others in a community organization called Green Space on Georgia have been urging the county government to preserve the area for a park.

Leggett said he would look into the case, but said community concerns should always be an important part of any development project.