By MEGAN MILLER
WASHINGTON (April 2, 2009)—A congressional hearing grew tense and emotional Thursday around the testimony of three men, including Frederick County resident Antonio Ramirez, debating a controversial immigration enforcement program known simply as 287(g).
"I don't know that I've ever felt more uneasy listening to testimony," said House Judiciary Committee member Steve King, R-Iowa.
Ramirez and Julio Mora of Avondale, Ariz., recounted experiences of racial profiling and discrimination at the hands of law enforcement officers acting under 287(g), which allows local police to work as field agents of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Those officers become an extension of ICE in investigating and processing immigration cases.
Ramirez said he and other Frederick County Latinos have been "harassed" by authorities, pulled over for contrived traffic violations or even "stopped by police and asked for identification while they were just walking on the sidewalk or sitting on a bench."
But Ray Tranchant of Virginia Beach, Va., defended the program, saying his teenage daughter Tessa and her friend Allison Kunhardt would still be alive if 287(g) had been enforced in their area.
The girls were killed two years ago when drunk driver Alfredo Ramos, an illegal immigrant, crashed into their car as they sat at a red light. Ramos had two prior arrests for alcohol-related incidents, Tranchant said.
"But because of sanctuary policies ... nobody ... questioned him about his immigration status. Instead of being deported to his home country, he stayed on the streets of Virginia Beach to drink, drive, and subsequently kill these two beautiful girls."
In Maryland, 287(g) has been controversial since the Frederick County Sheriff's Department implemented it in mid-2008. Other counties failed to follow suit, however some, like Montgomery, have recently adopted tougher immigration enforcement policies.
Congress has considered the program several times in recent months. On March 4 the House Homeland Security Committee heard testimony on 287(g) from panelists including Frederick County Sheriff Chuck Jenkins.
Jenkins testified that the program has been "a valuable tool to law enforcement in fighting crime" in Frederick County. As of that date, Jenkins said 309 illegal immigrants had been referred to deportation proceedings, including nine members of the MS-13 and 18th Street gangs.
But Ramirez said the program has done nothing more than foster a culture of fear in the immigrant community.
"Latino citizens and immigrants in Frederick feel like we are walking around with huge targets on our backs," Ramirez said. "We get stopped by the police in Frederick County for all kinds of reasons—or no reason at all—and then asked for 'papers.'"
Immigrants are now less willing to contact the police even if they're victims of crimes, Ramirez said.
"Latinos and immigrants do not report crimes anymore," Ramirez said. "We expect to be able to trust the government and law enforcement. But we have been disappointed by Frederick."
Tension in the hearing grew during King's question period, as he pitted first Ramirez and later Mora against Tranchant and asked the two if the "inconvenience" they'd experienced at the hands of police outweighed the tragedy of losing a child.
"In the same way he feels sorrow, I feel sorrow too," answered Ramirez, who brandished a personal copy of the U.S. Constitution during his testimony.
Mora, 19, spoke nervously at first, but answered King confidently when asked how he would want police to respond if an illegal immigrant caused the death of a family member.
"Those laws should be enforced, but there are laws police must observe while enforcing other laws," Mora said.
At one point, Mora looked down the long witness table to Tranchant.
"I'm sorry," Mora said. "I'm sorry for your loss."
Capital News Service contributed to this report.