Silver Chips Online

A step towards security

Montgomery County considers a new illegal immigrant policy that will bring long-term safety to residents

By Deepa Chellappa, Online Editor-in-Chief
December 27, 2008
Last June, a waiter at the Red Robin restaurant in Lakeforest Mall was stabbed to death by an 18-year-old man who, six weeks earlier, had been caught by police with marijuana at an elementary school. The following August, a Silver Spring man died after allegedly being attacked with a metal bat by his roommate. In October, an elderly Bethesda woman was burned alive in her house. And just last month, a 14-year-old Blazer, Tai Lam, was shot and killed on a county bus.

These crimes may seem unconnected, but they share a commonality: illegal immigrants in Montgomery County allegedly committed all of these horrific murders. In light of the unsettling violence of the past months, Montgomery County officials are considering a stricter policy for illegal immigrants who are suspects of serious crimes. This policy, which is still in the planning process, would prevent the release of illegal immigrants in jail while they await judicial proceedings. Although county leaders have not yet defined what additional powers police or immigration officials might be given, the policy would be an appropriate and justified response to the crime in our area, but must be carefully planned to prevent the erosion of community trust in the police and the inevitable claims of racial profiling.

As the Gazette reported on Dec. 3, current county protocol requires police officers to alert federal agents when routine background checks on individuals indicate the person has an immigration warrant, but county police do not initiate their own investigations into immigration status. Federal authorities may have up to 72 hours to take custody of suspected illegal immigrants and the county may release them after that. Illegal immigrants are not prevented from being granted bond.

While the county's immigration policy has not been modified since 2003, it is time to take a definitive step toward curbing violence in our community. According to a 2008 report by the Maricopa County Attorneys Office in Phoenix, illegal immigrants accounted for 19 percent of those sentenced for felonies in the Arizona county in 2007, even though illegal immigrants only make up an estimated nine percent of the county's population. The report notes that illegal immigrants commit a higher number of certain crimes than persons who are known to be lawfully in this country, including kidnapping, forgery, human smuggling and the manufacturing, selling and transporting of drugs.

Although one cannot assume a definitive link between illegal immigration and crime, the facts are frightening. Montgomery County is widely known for its relaxed policy on illegal immigrants, and for the most part, this standing fosters diversity and community trust. But when undocumented immigrants begin to harm rather than help society, officials must take action to target perpetrators and prevent their release. Hector Hernandez, the illegal immigrant from El Salvador convicted for the murder of Tai Lam, was arrested in early October for concealing a dangerous weapon. However, he was released after a standard warrant search, which showed that he was not wanted by immigration officials at the time, according to the Washington Post. As a matter of current policy, county jail officials do not routinely go beyond a warrant check to investigate whether suspects are in the country legally. Hernandez's release marked the second time in a year that the department freed an MS-13 gang member who went on to commit another atrocious crime, when officials could have further investigated his immigration status and possibly avoided the violence altogether.

While there are some who assert that immigration law enforcement is solely a federal responsibility, the U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) cannot do the job effectively without assistance from state and local law enforcement. But the policy must be appropriately balanced to prevent racial stereotyping. In fact, in this regard, the policy shows tremendous promise because it is modeled after similar successful efforts in neighboring counties. The Gazette reported in October that Frederick County's endeavor to crack down on illegal immigrants who commit crimes has not only produced positive results - violent crimes in the county like homicides and aggravated assaults have decreased dramatically - but also shows no indication of discrimination.

"Everybody is processed the same way and everybody is treated the same way," Frederick County Sheriff Chuck Jenkins said during a briefing to Frederick County commissioners in early October. "The person has to be arrested for a jail-able offense and brought to the Frederick County Detention Center. The Frederick County Sheriff's Office does not go into the community seeking undocumented aliens."

As Jenkins noted, it is clearly imprudent to engage in a countywide hunt for illegal immigrants; instead, it is much more feasible to give police officers more authority to investigate the immigration status of a foreign-born suspect, but only when the suspect has already been arrested for a serious crime. That the county is presently able to simply let these criminals loose without federal government involvement after a vague time period of three days is dangerous and foolhardy.

As we remember the profound effect community violence has had on Blazers' lives, we must consider any policy that will help to increase our safety, as long as it does not cross the fine line into stereotyping. And by limiting police officers' powers solely to jails and only looking into the immigration status of foreign-born suspects under arrest, authorities should be able to circumvent this thorny issue. Officials will announce any changes in early January, and we should hope the plans are carried through, as they can only mean safer streets for county residents.

http://silverchips.mbhs.edu/story/8818