A movement to declare Frederick a safe, welcoming city for undocumented immigrants is gaining traction.
A report published in December by the Immigrant Legal Resource Center counted at least 39 cities and approximately 364 counties across the country that consider themselves sanctuary jurisdictions.
A new grassroots advocacy group called Safe Haven Frederick introduced a petition on Feb. 14, published online and circulated in paper form, aimed at making Frederick a sanctuary city. In a single week, the petition amassed 500 signatures, according to Alicia Barmon, Safe Haven’s founder and organizer.
Safe Haven began as a dozen residents meeting in Barmon’s downtown office in the wake of the November election. It has grown to more than 300 members on its Facebook page, with biweekly meetings. Safe Haven also co-sponsored two recent rallies in Frederick, one in solidarity with immigrants and another with the Muslim community.
Safe Haven is working with several members of the Frederick Board of Aldermen to introduce a resolution establishing a sanctuary policy for the city.
At least one local church might also adopt a sanctuary policy. At the state level, lawmakers are considering a similar measure, as well as one that would do the exact opposite, to force local governments to participate in federal immigration enforcement. The two bills were heard in Senate committee hearings Tuesday.
None of the Frederick County Council members had introduced, drafted or even requested information on a sanctuary policy for the county as of Thursday morning, according to Ragen Cherney, the council’s chief of staff. There has been no public indication any council members plan to do so.
What “sanctuary” means varies by jurisdiction.
Some sanctuary policies, often at the county or state level, might focus on limiting local officials’ cooperation with federal immigration detainers. At the city level, sanctuary declarations might prohibit local officials from asking about a person’s immigration status.
Other municipalities might not have a formal policy or resolution, but informally follow these practices, the Immigrant Legal Resource Center report stated.
Barmon described the type of sanctuary city policy that Safe Haven is pushing for as a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, similar to the former policy about gay people serving in the military.
She acknowledged that federal immigration laws supersede local policy; a city or county cannot actually stop immigration detainers from being used to deport undocumented immigrants. A resolution would simply formalize what she said is already a common practice.
The Frederick Police Department already codified this policy. But the rest of the city — local government, schools and employers — have never adopted a similar declaration.
Referencing the number of sanctuary cities and counties nationwide, Barmon said, “We should be one of them.”
“It’s the right thing to do,” she said.
Alderman Michael O’Connor, in a phone interview Tuesday, said most of the discussions he’s had with fellow aldermen focused on a similar interpretation of “sanctuary.” He said the draft resolution would adopt the police department’s policy citywide.
O’Connor, a Democrat who is running for mayor, said that at least three of the five aldermen support the concept. The language, including the term “sanctuary,” remains in draft stages.
“For me, it’s a statement of support for the residents of our community who work, who live, who go to school, who pay taxes ... in the city,” he said. “The reality is, for people in our community who are here, regardless of their documentation, they should not have to live in fear.”
Asked if the city’s resolution might take any additional measures to protect undocumented immigrants within its borders, O’Connor said he wasn’t sure. The exact language and extent of the policy was still being determined.
The Rev. Eliezer Valentín-Castañón, senior pastor at Trinity United Methodist Church, said that next month, he and other church leaders will discuss details of becoming a sanctuary church. The parameters of a policy were not yet defined, he said.
Valentín-Castañón envisioned a sanctuary church as a place for undocumented immigrants to seek refuge, as well as a resource to connect them with lawyers and civil rights organizations. He noted that most churches don’t have the space to house people overnight.
“The most important thing is the statement you’re making to protect your immigrant brothers and sisters,” he said.
Abdoul Konare, an immigration attorney with offices in D.C. and Frederick, supported the idea of protecting undocumented immigrants in Frederick. Konare serves on the board of directors for Centro Hispano de Frederick and volunteers his legal services to organization clients, many of whom are undocumented.
But Konare said that declaring Frederick a sanctuary city means nothing as long as the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office continues to participate in elements of federal immigration enforcement. Trained deputies and correctional officers can perform certain functions of immigration enforcement under oversight from the Department of Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement as part of its 287(g) program.
Since 2008, Frederick County has placed 1,444 ICE detainers on jail inmates; 1,299 of those inmates were placed into immigration proceedings by ICE.
Even if Frederick’s policy is to refrain from asking about a person’s immigration status, that question becomes part of the process for anyone who is arrested or charged and taken to the Frederick County Adult Detention Center.
A sanctuary policy for Frederick directly conflicts with this program, Konare said.
“I don’t think that should be a deterrent to formalize ... that we are a safe haven,” she said.
Local policies may become irrelevant depending on what happens at the state level, O’Connor noted.
The Maryland Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee on Tuesday heard two bills that introduced opposing viewpoints on whether county and state law enforcement should participate in federal immigration enforcement.
A bill from Frederick County Sen. Michael Hough, R-District 4, would require state or local correctional facilities that are notified by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security that an inmate is subject to an immigration detainer to give Homeland Security at least 72 hours’ notice before the person is scheduled to be released. The bill would also let correctional facilities hold inmates up to an additional 48 hours to allow Homeland Security to take them into custody.
An opposing bill from Sen. Victor Ramirez, a Prince George’s County Democrat, explicitly states that local governments not take part in federal immigration enforcement. Ramirez’s bill includes language from “sanctuary community” policies that would require the state to attempt to limit immigration enforcement at public schools, hospitals and courthouses.
Neither committee had taken action on the bills as of Friday.
Ramirez said the committee will likely vote on his bill in the next couple of weeks. Hough didn’t know when a vote might be scheduled on his bill.
Sheriff Chuck Jenkins testified on Tuesday in Annapolis in support of Sen. Hough’s bill. Other local leaders have also expressed opposition to sanctuary-type policies.
Martin Burns, a commissioner in Thurmont, addressed the topic during a meeting this month. Burns, a registered Republican who serves as director of the Special Programs Division for the U.S. Department of Defense, elaborated on his concerns in a phone interview Thursday.
To Burns, seeking out undocumented immigrants was not a part of Thurmont’s job as a town. But local law enforcement should be able to work with federal authorities when those people commit another crime, he said.
Enforcing immigration laws is no different than traffic violations and juvenile detentions, he said.
“This is not about immigration, in my opinion. It’s about the rule of law,” Burns said.
He added, “If there’s a process to come here legally, and if you break that law, what other laws can you ignore?”
Billy Shreve (R), a Frederick County councilman who co-chaired Trump’s campaign committee in Frederick County, said he welcomed the prospect of any Democratic elected official, local or state, proposing sanctuary legislation.
“It will surely lose them the election on that issue alone,” he said. “Nobody would support that.”
He cited results of a Harvard-Harris survey provided to The Hill, which indicated 80 percent of voters think local authorities should have to report any undocumented immigrants they encounter to federal immigration authorities.
The Hill‘s story says the results came from an online survey of 2,148 registered voters.
Shreve said a sanctuary policy would “usurp federal law.”
“If you have a lawless country, or someone who wants to usurp the law, then you have anarchy,” he said.
Barmon said she hoped to present Safe Haven’s petition to the city once the group gathered a “critical mass” of signatures. She named 1,000 signatures as a possible threshold, although she wasn’t sure.
O’Connor was uncertain when the Board of Aldermen would schedule a public discussion on a sanctuary resolution or policy, except to say he hoped it would be “sooner rather than later.”
Safe Haven’s members are at the same time working to establish a pledge program for local businesses to declare support for immigrant customers and employees. Participating businesses would receive a decal to display in the store, similar to existing stickers and signs that declare a business as friendly to the LGBTQ community, Barmon said.
The pledge is more than just a sticker.
“There are some teeth to it,” Barmon said.
She cited training employees on unbiased service as one example of an action participating businesses would commit to as part of the pledge.
Barmon also named creation of a city advisory committee that would “bring more marginalized persons to the table” as a future goal for Safe Haven. She didn’t have specifics on the makeup or functions of the committee yet.
She emphasized the value of these marginalized communities, including immigrants, for the city, the state and the nation.
“This is not just about diversity and inclusion,” she said. “This is a survival of our species thing.”
Staff writers Samantha Hogan and Danielle E. Gaines contributed to this story.