Jewish Community Split on Baltimore County ICE Bill

Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz shows his support for the immigrant community (Photo by Justin Silberman)

A Baltimore County Council bill that would require the county’s jail to participate in a federal immigration screening program has sparked great debate in the Jewish community.

The proposed legislation, which was introduced by the county’s three Republican council members on May 1, calls for the county to join a federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) program known as 287(g).

While a number of Jewish officials oppose the measure, including County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, a Democrat, the community is all but united on the bill.

In the 287(g) program, ICE officials train police and correctional officers to assist with federal immigration enforcement. Frederick County has participated in the program since 2008, Harford County signed on with the program last year and Anne Arundel County has applied to join the program.

The bill is scheduled for a vote at Monday’s 6 p.m. council session, and its success seems unlikely.

In an emotionally charged hearing on Tuesday that lasted approximately two hours, nearly 50 residents divided on the issue lined up in front of council members to make their opinions known.

All four Democrats on the council voiced strong opposition to the bill, citing concerns that the program could be used to take action against people on the basis of immigration status, ethnic origin or religion. They spent more than a half hour debating their stance with Republican council members Todd Crandell (District 7), Wade Kach (District 3) and David Marks (District 5) before hearing testimony from the public.

Officials from the Baltimore Jewish Council and Jews United for Justice feel the bill would unfairly target the undocumented community, while Jewish members of the Baltimore County Republican Central Committee see it as a means for removing illegal immigrants who have committed crimes.

Opponents argue that the bill would damage law enforcement’s relationship with the immigrant community, create mistrust and deter immigrants from reporting crime.

Madeline Suggs, director of public affairs for the BJC, drew parallels to some of the hardships Jews suffered during the Holocaust.

“Obviously, the Jewish community has been familiar with discriminatory practices in our own history,” Suggs said. “We really want to show unity with our friends in the Latino and immigrant community.”

Molly Amster, JUFJ’s Baltimore director, said she believes it’s the job of police to make immigrants feel safe and welcomed.

“We need to make sure we protect everyone in our midst,” Amster said. “Immigration officials can deal with immigration issues, and police can deal with crime.”

Supporters contend local governments should have all the resources they can get to assist with immigration.

Al Mendelsohn, chairman of the Baltimore County Republican Central Committee, told the JT after the hearing that he thinks the program makes it easier for local government to help enforce immigration law.

He said he feels people who are in the U.S. without proper documentation should be identified and deported in a timely fashion if they commit a crime.

“It’s not often that a government has the chance to really round up the people who are harming society,” said Mendelsohn, whose father immigrated to the U.S. from Nazi Germany in 1940. “Certainly, when someone goes to jail, that is a time and a place that [law enforcement] clearly should be able to identify someone who has done anything wrong. It doesn’t matter if they haven’t paid their child support, if they’ve been driving without a license or if they have a bench warrant.”

Lisa Robin Lederman, who also sits on the Baltimore County Republican Central Committee, said the legislation is “logical, reasonable and necessary.” She added that Kamenetz, who is weighing a run for governor, and the Democratic members of the council are “simply pandering for votes.”

“We have a huge, proliferating problem with MS-13 gang members, drug trafficking and other violent crimes,” Lederman said. “Our police officers must be allowed to work in partnership with federal immigration authorities to specifically target those illegal criminals and make sure they never return to our streets.  This is a clear-cut issue of law and order.”

Last month, Kamenetz signed an executive order reinforcing the county’s policy not to hold people in jail past their release date for immigration reasons, unless “a court-ordered warrant signed by a judicial official is presented.” The order also prohibits county police officers from asking anyone’s immigration status.

Standing with dozens of immigrants at Patriot Plaza in Towson prior to Tuesday’s hearing as a sign of solidarity, Kamnetez accused the Republican councilmen of attempting to “infect our state with Trumpism.”

Despite a veto threat from Kamenetz if the bill passes, Crandell, lead sponsor of the bill, remains steadfast in his support of the legislation. Four votes on the seven-member council would be needed for passage, and five would be required to override a veto.

“It is common sense policy,” said Crandell, who represents Dundalk and Essex. “The costs are negligible, and you can’t put a price on safety.”

Councilwoman Vicki Almond (D-District 2), who represents a majority of the county’s Jewish population, said one of her biggest issues with the bill is its potential cost to taxpayers.

While ICE provides a free four-week training course for correctional officers, the county might have to foot the bill for substitute officers and transportation and lodging costs, opposing council members said. Almond cited a study from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill that found the total cost of operating the program in its first year in Mecklenburg County, N.C., was $5.5 million.

She also vowed to do her part to protect the 800,000-plus residents who encompass Baltimore County regardless of their legal status.

“This is a bad piece of legislation,” Almond said. “It separates us. It divides us. … I am always, always preaching that we should celebrate our diversity.”

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