Trust Act intends to protect undocumented Maryland residents

Gustavo Torres, executive director of CASA of Maryland, speaks to Takoma Park Mobilization about the Trust Act. Photo by Eric Bond

by Carrie Snurr
Capital News Service

A pair of bills would restrict the involvement of law enforcement agencies in Maryland with federal immigration efforts, banning state government agents from asking crime victims or suspects about their immigration or citizenship status.

The legislation, which is cross-filed in the House and Senate, is called the Maryland Law Enforcement and Governmental Trust Act.

“(T)his bill would prevent the state of Maryland from disclosing nonpublic information to Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents,” Sen. Victor Ramirez, D-Prince George’s, wrote in testimony submitted for a hearing Tuesday before the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. “Maryland is different from most states in that we allow undocumented residents to obtain driver’s licenses. We must assure those residents that their information is safe and will not be used for immigration purposes.”

The bill prohibits law enforcement officials in Maryland from disclosing nonpublic records to immigration authorities.

“This bill ensures that immigrant communities in our state are safe,” Yaheiry Galan, senior policy and elections manager for CASA de Maryland, said in an interview Tuesday with the University of Maryland’s Capital News Service. “The state has to take the responsibility to respond to recent executive actions (by the federal administration).”

CASA is a Latino and immigrant advocacy organization that works to improve quality of life in those communities.

“I have been the most outspoken police chief in Maryland about this issue,” Baltimore Police Department Commissioner Kevin Davis said Tuesday. “We want to build trust with the immigrant community in Baltimore.”

Davis said that his department will not cooperate with federal immigration investigations and would not ask about or check the immigration status of suspects or crime victims.

The bill states that state government officials couldn’t transfer individuals to federal immigration authorities or give federal authorities release information about that individual for the purposes of immigration enforcement without a warrant, according to a state document.

Currently, federal law controls immigration and enforcement. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security and Immigration, Customs and Enforcement have several programs that involve state and local authorities, according to a state document.

The Obama Administration’s Priority Enforcement Program enabled the Department of Homeland Security to work with local law enforcement to take custody of suspects who pose a danger to public safety before the suspect is released.

An executive order signed by President Donald Trump on Jan. 25 terminated that program and replaced it with the Secure Communities program. Participating correctional facilities can submit fingerprints of suspects to criminal and immigration databases.

If the suspect’s fingerprints matched a record of an immigration violation, Immigration and Customs Enforcement would be notified and could decide the next course of action, according to the state document.

The state attorney general would have to develop policies for hospitals, courts and schools to keep immigration status confidential and to keep enforcement operations from being conducted on those sites, regardless of immigration status, under the bill.

“This legislation will clarify the use of state resources for federal purposes such as immigration enforcement,” the Legislative Black Caucus of Maryland wrote in testimony supporting the legislation. “This bill serves to allay the fears of thousands of families across the state by promoting trust between law enforcement and the immigrant community.”

The legislation prohibits law enforcement officers from using public funds to investigate or detain individuals based on immigration status, which is generally a federal matter, according to the state document.

The bill does not prevent law enforcement officers from responding to requests from federal authorities about suspects with criminal records or when federal authorities have a lawful subpoena, according to the state document.

“I do not support (the legislation),” said Sen. Justin Ready, R-Carroll. “We put ourselves in a dangerous position when we pick and choose what laws we decide to enforce. It’s trying to insert D.C. politics into a local level.”

Federal law does not require that state and local law enforcement agencies participate in immigration enforcement. Federal immigration authorities can request a detainer, which asks that state authorities hold a suspect past their release date for the purposes of an immigration investigation.

The executive order asked that the federal government identify funds that can be withheld from cities or counties that are designated “sanctuaries,” which offer protection for undocumented immigrants.

Ready said that federal immigration efforts have focused on deporting undocumented immigrants who have committed felonies. He said that he has not heard of accusations of Maryland police targeting people they may believe to be undocumented immigrants and that the bill is unnecessary.

Gustavo Torres, executive director for CASA, addressed the executive order in a press release.

“It’s terrible, it’s detestable what this (Trump) administration is doing.” Torres said. “It is a way of justifying his executive orders because, for him, immigrants are criminals, because for him, Latinos are criminals. It’s definitely a direct attack on our community.”

Several Maryland counties, including Prince George’s and Montgomery, have policies in place to protect undocumented immigrants in those jurisdictions. The Howard County Council recently discussed legislation that would designate the jurisdiction as a sanctuary.

Similar bills were introduced in 2016 but one received an unfavorable report in the Senate and the other was withdrawn from consideration in the House.