The Sanctuary Debate Comes to Howard County


Sanctuary is a concept that has been around for a long time but has taken on  fresh urgency in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s incredibly ugly 2016 presidential campaign. A bill recently introduced in the Howard County Council (CB-9) has provoked a local debate about an issue that is already getting increased attention across the country.

Even though the idea of providing a safe place for people fleeing oppression goes back centuries, it still doesn’t have an entirely clear definition. Perhaps the best known example has been churches that offered shelter to refugees. That was certainly the origin of the modern sanctuary movement in the United States.

As immigration has become a hot button political issue in the United States in the 21st century, other forms of sanctuary have evolved, including sanctuary cities, states and campuses.  Most frequently, these entities take some formal action to indicate that they will not assist federal authorities in enforcing national immigration laws.

A specific point of controversy involves requests by federal authorities to local government to detain someone who has been arrested on an unrelated matter for an extended period until immigration officials can step in.  In 2016, a federal judge  ruled against the legality of that process.  Another contentious question is whether universities will voluntarily turn over student records to law enforcement authorities.

The case against assisting federal immigration officials has several bases.  The first, straight out of federalism, is that it’s not the job of local officials to enforce federal laws.  Proponents of this position argue that engaging in those activities detracts from the ability of the locals to enforce their own laws.  It is for exactly  that reason that so many police chiefs have supported the idea of sanctuary cities.

There is, of course, another factor that goes back to the more historical notion of sanctuary.  Protecting vulnerable people is seen by some as a moral imperative.  In the wake of Trump’s demagogic attacks on Mexicans, Muslims, refugees fleeing from the horrors of the war in Syria and immigrants in general, sanctuary is a way to stand in opposition to policies that are seen as betraying American values.

Opponents of sanctuary usually start with some version of “what part of illegal don’t you understand?”  Given the unwillingness of Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform, this argument wildly oversimplifies the issue.

They also often complain about immigrants taking jobs from Americans even though there is little or no evidence to support that assertion.  In fact, most studies conclude that immigrants, legal and illegal, contribute positively to the U.S. economy.

The arguments get more emotional when Trump and others cite examples of people in the country illegally who commit crimes.  Certainly there have been some incidents but the actual numbers are relatively few.  This position makes no more sense than advocating that all white nationalists be arrested because some of them have committed violent crimes.

Recently, much of the outcry against immigrants has arisen from a calculated political campaign by Republicans to distract members of their base from realizing that the party has done little to create jobs for them and cannot bring back the 1950s.  Finding a scapegoat is so much easier than confronting real issues.

It is not hard to find hundreds of examples of sanctuary cities and campuses in the United States.  Both Baltimore and Philadelphia are included as is the University of Pennsylvania but not Penn State.  Active discussions are underway in the University System of Maryland in the aftermath of the election.

The Howard County bill was introduced by Council President Calvin Ball and Councilwoman Jen Terrasa and is scheduled for a hearing on January 17.  The preamble of the bill states the case of its sponsors very explicitly:

WHEREAS, Howard County is comprised of immigrants from   throughout the world who contribute to our community’s social vitality, cultural richness, and economic strength; and

WHEREAS, Howard County has a strong tradition of leadership on issues of human rights, respecting the rights of and providing equal services to all individuals, regardless of race, ethnicity, or immigration status; and

WHEREAS, the recent national political climate has galvanized support for xenophobic, Islamophobic, and racist sentiments within certain portions of the population, resulting in increased incidents of hate speech and violence; and

WHEREAS, unfortunate statements made by our nation’s President-elect have bolstered such dangerous sentiments and caused many residents throughout our country and within Howard County to fear for their personal safety and the loss of civil liberties; and

WHEREAS, the Howard County Council wishes to ensure that all residents of Howard County, regardless of nationality or citizenship, shall have fair and equal access to County benefits, opportunities, and services; and

WHEREAS, we must act now and always to uphold our commitment to be a community free of prejudice, bigotry, and hate; and

WHEREAS, the Howard County Council wishes to affirm that commitment by declaring Howard County a sanctuary county…

Make no mistake, this bill is a principled commentary about the direction in which the country is going.  It is a striking example of local elected officials having the courage to stand up to the hatred and prejudice that have been so much a part of Trump’s appeal.

The political dynamics going forward are likely to be complicated.  Supporters and opponents are organizing, mobilizing and making public appeals.  On Thursday, Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman announced that he would veto the bill if it passed County Council.  In his statement, he first asserted that he is a supporter of diversity, inclusion and civility, but then called the bill a “hollow political statement.”

With the only Republican on County Council, Greg Fox, already on record opposing  CB-9, an override of a veto would need all four Democratic Council members to support the effort.  That could definitely happen.

The debate in Howard County has echoes in other parts of the state.  Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz has already stated that his county will not assist in any immigration enforcement efforts.  By contrast, the man he may challenge in 2018, Governor Hogan, announced in 2015 that the State of Maryland would cooperate with federal officials.

With some Congressional Republicans threatening to withhold federal funds from sanctuary cities, states and campuses, this debate is likely to get even more heated in the coming year.  How it plays out in Howard County could be an early indicator of the larger battle.