O'Malley, Duncan join to fight bill

Lawmakers asked to defeat act that would let police enforce immigration laws

November 28, 2003|By Jason Song | Jason Song,SUN STAFF

Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley and Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan have sent letters to federal lawmakers, urging them not to approve controversial legislation that would encourage local police departments to enforce immigration laws - and penalize those that don't.

The bill, known as the CLEAR Act, would provide financial incentives to police departments for immigration law enforcement. Neither Baltimore nor Montgomery police conduct such enforcement. Duncan and O'Malley say the legislation would undermine trust between immigrants and police and would divert resources from other critical areas.

"Rather than spreading our resources more thinly, Baltimore City could use more funds to improve border and port security, which would improve drug interdiction efforts as well," O'Malley wrote in his Nov. 4 letter.

The CLEAR Act - which stands for the Clear Law Enforcement for Criminal Alien Removal Act - would give local police unambiguous authority to enforce federal immigration laws. It also would set aside nearly $2.5 billion to give local law enforcement agencies more immigration enforcement training and to pay departments that arrest and help deport illegal immigrants.

It would not require departments to enforce immigration law, although any that do not would lose some federal funding within two years.

U.S. Rep. Charlie Norwood, a Republican from Georgia who sponsored the bill, and supporters say the bill is necessary because it is impossible for the nation's nearly 2,000 federal immigration officers to keep track of the estimated 9 million illegal immigrants.

The act has been co-sponsored by more than 100 members of Congress and numerous law enforcement groups, including the National Sheriffs' Association, the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police and the 19-member Garrett County Sheriff's Department.

But some cities and police departments refuse to enforce immigration laws - Los Angeles, New York and Durham, N.C., all have passed resolutions barring their officers from inquiring about immigration status.

Most Maryland police departments, except the Maryland State Police, do not enforce immigration law unless a suspect has committed a crime.

Some worry that the bill could harm law enforcement and the immigrant community. "A troubling consequence of this legislation is that it could cause members of certain groups not to report crimes or to come forward with information about crimes for fear of being deported," Duncan wrote.

About 6 percent of Baltimore's nearly 650,000 residents are immigrants, according to the most recent U.S. Census. Nearly 28 percent of the nearly 870,000 people who live in Montgomery County came from another country.

Prince George's County, which has the second-biggest foreign-born population in Maryland, does not have a position on the bill, county officials said. The nearly 800,000-resident county has about 110,000 immigrants.

Duncan also worried that the act could be a form of discrimination.

"It would appear, at least on the surface, that this Act could be construed to contain elements of profiling," he wrote in his Oct. 17 letter, which he sent to Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat.

Norwood said that O'Malley and Duncan are not paying enough attention to the dangers of illegal immigration. Maryland police "deserve to know that our federal government will give them adequate assistance while enforcing immigration laws and finally fix the broken immigration system that asks them to arrest and re-arrest the same violent criminal aliens over and over again," Norwood said in a written statement.

But local immigrant advocates applauded the actions of O'Malley and Duncan.

"We work very hard in communities to build their trust in the police and this bill would erode that," said Matt Wilch, director of asylum and immigration concerns for the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service in Baltimore. "We're really happy the mayor has spoken out."

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