Dangerous Suspects Could Be Asked Immigration Status

Dangerous' suspects could be asked immigration status
County leaders say aim would be to keep criminals off the streets

By Sebastian Montes
The Gazette (MD), January 21, 2009

After meeting with advocates from both sides of the immigration debate, Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett will decide in the next 10 days whether to allow county officers to ask federal immigration agents to determine if suspects arrested for violent crimes and weapons violations are in the country illegally.

Leggett (D) and his top officials are still hammering out key details, but County Council President Philip M. Andrews told Gazette editors and reporters Thursday that Police Chief J. Thomas Manger wants the new policy to apply to 'dangerous' crimes. Those crimes include murder, rape, aggravated assault, robbery, arson, larceny, as well as misdemeanors such as home break-ins, simple assault, weapons violations and driving under the influence.

The change is meant to close gaps in the judicial system exposed primarily by the shooting death of 14-year-old Tai Lam on a Ride On bus in November, allegedly at the hands of an illegal immigrant with ties to the gang MS-13. Two other killings last year are alleged to have been committed by suspects confirmed to be in the country illegally.

County officers already ask suspects their country of origin as part of routine processing after arrest, Andrews said, but asking U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to determine the suspect's immigration status is expressly forbidden.

ICE has a 'law enforcement support center' that any local jurisdiction can call to inquire about someone's immigration status. ICE agents check information provided by the local officer against federal databases. If ICE identifies the suspect as an illegal immigrant, they can issue a detainer that flags the person for detention.

ICE detainers do not preempt local courts from releasing a suspect on bond.

'As long as [a suspect] is going through a judicial process, we can't overstep that,' said ICE spokesman Brandon Alvarez Montgomery.

However, a county officer could ask ICE agents in Baltimore to take the suspect into custody if the suspect is about to be released. Because of a shortage of manpower and resources, ICE prioritizes those arrests by the seriousness of the alleged crime, Montgomery said.

Leggett spokesman Patrick K. Lacefield did not know to what extent ICE officials have been involved in the discussions, but stressed that the investigation into a suspect's immigration status would be determined exclusively by ICE.

All of the reforms will be announced by the end of the month, he said.

Yet to be decided

In closed-door meetings Jan. 12 and 16 where immigrant advocates and anti-illegal immigrant activists met separately with officials from the county's state's attorney's office and the county's departments of police, corrections, human rights and community partnerships officials did not indicate how many of the county's criminals are thought to be in the country illegally, attendees said. Nor did officials detail whether calling ICE would fall to police or correctional officers, what the steps will be and how the county will navigate human rights or constitutional implications.

Without those details, immigrant advocates say the county would be heading down a slippery legal slope and could too easily become a proxy for federal agents while sacrificing immigrants' trust in the police department.

'We're talking about solved murders precisely because immigrants and probably some of them undocumented came forward,' said Kerry O'Brien, head of Casa of Maryland's legal department, who attended the Jan. 12 meeting. 'That's what's so very frustrating about this very quick process. It's a major change and a major departure from long-standing count policy, yet it's being done on the backs of envelopes. There's too much chance for racial profiling, too much chance that the immigrant community would clam up and not feel safe talking to police. It's just fraught with too much.'

Speaking to media after the Jan. 16 meeting, Help Save Maryland director Brad Botwin called on Leggett and Manger to 'do a better job of getting illegal alien MS-13 gang members, day laborers and others off our streets.'

Referencing a 7.7 percent increase in crime, Botwin said he wants everyone in county jail to be 'fully screened' by ICE.

'The bottom line here is that the citizens of Montgomery County do not feel safe right now with the current policies and procedures,' he said. ' Things are out of control.'