Advocates and law enforcement officials called on state lawmakers Thursday to approve legislation that would limit the circumstances under which illegal immigrants could be held in jail — a proposal intended to curb a 5-year-old federal immigration program called Secure Communities.
The proposal, similar to laws in California and Connecticut, would frequently require local jails to ignore requests by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to hold immigrants for 48 hours beyond when they would normally be released.
The proposal is intended to reduce the number of immigrants who are being deported despite having no serious prior criminal violations. In Maryland, a Baltimore Sun analysis found, more than 40 percent of immigrants who have been deported since 2009 had no prior criminal record — a far greater share than the national average.
Many of those immigrants are being identified under the Secure Communities programs, which was intended originally to target repeat and violent offenders for deportation. The program allows federal officials to check the immigration status of anyone arrested in the country.
"It's not our responsibility as local law enforcement officials to focus on immigration," said Prince George's County State's Attorney Angela D. Alsobrooks, who supports the legislation. "That is in the jurisdiction of the federal government."
The Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee heard more than an hour of testimony from supporters, including Prince George's County Police Chief Mark McGaw — who said he could back the measure if some changes were made — several leading unions and a number of immigrants.
Miguel Morales, a 30-year-old Lanham man who spoke through a translator, told lawmakers he was pulled over by Prince George's County police in 2010 for veering into another lane.
He was arrested for driving without a license and spent a week in jail before being transferred to immigration agents, he said. He now faces deportation.
"I'm not a criminal," Morales said. "My only interaction with the police was for minor traffic offenses."
Three people spoke against the bill, including Brad Botwin, a Rockville resident who leads an advocacy group called Help Save Maryland. Botwin said he is concerned such a law would encourage a flood of new immigrants to come to Maryland.
Botwin said he wanted to remind lawmakers that "citizens, rather than illegal aliens, are your constituents." He said the cooperation of local, state and federal law enforcement agencies "is vital to screening out those who would do us harm."
No federal officials testified.
The issue has received renewed attention in Annapolis since The Sun reported that Maryland has a higher share of noncriminal deportations under the program than all but four other states. Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat, wrote to the Department of Homeland Security this month seeking an explanation, but it's not clear whether he has received a response.
Secure Communities provides immigration officials access to fingerprints of everyone who is arrested, be it for a homicide or driving without a license. The suspect's fingerprints are sent to Homeland Security, which checks a database of people known to be in the country illegally.
If the database finds a match, federal agents ask the local jail to hold the immigrant for 48 hours beyond the time he or she would otherwise be released so a pickup can be arranged. The legislation under consideration in Annapolis would dictate when jails in Maryland would be allowed to honor those federal requests.
The Senate bill is sponsored by Sen. Victor R. Ramirez, a Prince George's County Democrat. A similar bill in the House of Delegates, sponsored by Del. Ana Sol Gutierrez, a Montgomery County Democrat, is set for a hearing next week.
Ramirez made several amendments to the legislation Thursday that would give law enforcement more flexibility to hold immigrants under certain circumstances. Immigrants would be released only if they have been acquitted of pending charges, have posted bond or are otherwise eligible for release under state law.