Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2007

Immigrant arrests will continue, chief says

Debate between enforcing federal law and tolerance will only grow stronger, advocates say

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Naomi Brookner⁄The Gazette
Immigration lawyer Jennifer Vetter Landeo advises a married couple on signing immigration documents Monday night in preparation for the husband’s green card interview. The Gaithersburg immigration law firm Landeo & Capriotti has seen a surge in people asking for help in recent months, Landeo says, especially from families that have moved to the county from Northern Virginia.
A county police practice of arresting people wanted on federal immigration detainers may become a written directive, although county leaders say they are awaiting a legal review by the county attorney.

‘‘We’ve looked at this issue from every perspective. We’ve had long discussions with the county attorney, and there’s going to be no significant changes to our current policy,” said County Police Chief J. Thomas Manger.

Manger said police are trained to take people into custody if their name shows up on a national crime database for failing to appear at a deportation hearing (a civil offense) or for re-entering the country after being deported (a criminal offense).

‘‘So it wasn’t like we had to give a special directive for that,” he said.

Last spring, advocates for immigrants said the fact that police arrest people on federal civil warrants was creating mistrust in the community. For years, Montgomery County Police has said it was not interested in anyone’s immigration status because police want people to report crimes or to step forward as witnesses without fear of deportation. However, in 2003, the U.S. Department of Justice added civil detainers for immigration violations to the National Crime Information Center’s database.

‘‘We dearly hope that the county re-evaluates its role serving as immigration police,” said Casa of Maryland Executive Director Gustavo Torres. ‘‘The [county police’s] enforcement of civil immigration law has severely damaged the faith of the immigration community in its county.”

That has resulted, the advocates say, in crime victims and witnesses not calling the police.

County Attorney Leon Rodriguez has been asked by County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) to review MCP’s practice and recommend what the official policy should be.

Rodriguez declined to say what he intends to recommend or when his review would be complete.

‘‘We’re still working on it, although we’re much closer for something for the county executive and the police chief to review,” he said.

A Leggett spokesman said the county executive is waiting to see Rodriguez’s draft before commenting.

Even as a legal immigrant, Fernando Garrido, 52, who owns a Gaithersburg travel agency with his wife, said he has never seen such a high level of distrust and anxiety in his eight years he has lived in the county.

‘‘Latinos have believed in Maryland as an ideal state and have always appreciated it,” Garrido said. ‘‘But now there is a lot of fear.

‘‘Virginia has created a pattern, and people are worried Maryland is copying that,” he said Monday afternoon as he ate lunch with his wife, Eunice, and his son, Eric, 5.

Sitting at an outdoor table at Tacos Pepitos Bakery in Olde Towne, Garrido looked out onto the afternoon’s modest foot traffic along East Diamond Avenue, Olde Towne’s main thoroughfare. Normally, the Western Union that shares its building with Pepitos would be much busier, Garrido said. And so would Pepitos, a Mexican restaurant where one of the best-sellers is its ‘‘burrito ilegal.” But the fear of police has had a chilling effect on commerce.

‘‘There are fewer people on the streets, I have noticed,” said Garrido, who said he has been stopped by both county and Gaithersburg City Police.

The county executive’s Latino advisory committee issued a report last month, calling for the police to not enforce federal immigration laws.

Committee co-Chairman Henry Montes said he is holding out hope that Leggett will order the department to reverse its policy on detainers.

‘‘It’s hard for people not to be leery of what authorities are telling them,” Montes said. ‘‘It sours people to the system of government and frankly it sours people on both sides. ... This is a debate that is not helpful to anybody.”

The committee also called on the county to create an ombudsman to monitor the county police department.

‘‘One of the things we can get at is whether or not these stops are being made more arbitrarily than they should be,” Montes said. ‘‘We’re going to continue that dialogue with him [Leggett] on this. It’s not going to be something where we let it go away.”

Tension over illegal immigration is only going to grow, said immigration lawyer Jennifer Vetter Landeo of Gaithersburg. Her office has seen an increase of people fleeing from the anti-immigrant restrictions enacted in Northern Virginia.

‘‘People are moving here from Virginia, and they’re advising their families to move here,” Landeo said.

Complexity

Different communities have responded in different ways.

Manger said that even after the county’s policy is put into writing, state Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler (D) will have to weigh in so that police departments across the state can have a consistent policy.

So far, no one has asked the Attorney General’s Office for an opinion, said Gansler spokeswoman Raquel Guillory.

In Frederick County, the sheriff’s office has deputies undergoing specialized training to search for illegal immigrants.

In Prince George’s, the county police does not enforce federal immigration laws, said Prince George’s County Police Lt. April Delabrer.

‘‘We don’t lock up or arrest immigration based solely on immigration warrants,” Delabrer said. ‘‘We basically leave that up to immigration officials.”

That policy was set by a Prince George’s County Council resolution in 2003.

Takoma Park Police Chief Ronald Ricucci recently asked the city to change its policy of being a ‘‘sanctuary city” to allow his officers to arrest people wanted on criminal immigration warrants.

But the Takoma Park Council unanimously defeated his request last week.

‘‘To be a sanctuary city, the community treats all people equally, regardless of immigration status,” City Councilman Terry Seamens said before the vote. ‘‘It has been presented as a public safety concern, but when we pressed Ricucci on it ... he said it’s only happened three times in seven months. So it seems like there might be better use of resources.”

Priorities

Those opposed to Montgomery County’s history of tolerance toward illegal immigrants say county police should make immigration enforcement even more of a priority.

‘‘That’s every police officer’s job throughout the United States, is to enforce the law,” said Charles R. ‘‘Chuck” Floyd, a critic of the county’s policies toward immigrants and an unsuccessful candidate for county executive and Congress. ‘‘When a warrant is in their database, I expect every police officer to enforce the law. That’s why we have a national database with warrants for these kinds of issues. For someone to say, ‘No, that’s not my job,’ they should not be in that job if they can’t enforce the law.”

Floyd and a dozen others met with Manger in September to ask him to enroll the county police in the federal immigration enforcement program.

But Manger rejected the critics’ demands, saying he did not want to put his resources toward that.

‘‘There should be a special task force in every county in the United States where local police are helping federal agencies with this problem,” Floyd said. ‘‘If every community had five or 10 officers [trained], then this problem would be solved.”

Others disagree.

The police should leave immigration issues to the federal government not just because of the mistrust the arrests create, but also because of the complexity of the immigration laws, said Michael Maggio, whose Washington firm Maggio & Kattar focuses on immigration law.

Immigration law is a veritable ‘‘alphabet soup” of classifications, he said, with dozens of categories each with their own subcategories — a system bemoaned for its ‘‘labyrinthine character” by a federal appeals court in 2003 as ‘‘a maze of hyper-technical statutes and regulations that engender waste, delay, and confusion.”

It makes Maggio, who has been practicing immigration law for nearly 30 years, doubt the wisdom of police agencies stepping into the legal fray.

‘‘It’s dangerous,” he said. ‘‘And let’s not beat around the proverbial bush: It’s political. This is a lot of show where the consequences are a lot of suffering.”