Takoma Park Stands Behind Its Illegal Immigrant Sanctuary

Resisting Tough Enforcement Efforts in Western Md.


TAKOMA PARK, Md. (November 10, 2010)—As counties in Western Maryland move toward stricter enforcement of laws against illegal immigrants, officials in Takoma Park are standing behind a decades-old law to provide sanctuary to them.

"We just were much happier with sending the message to the community that ... the police are your friends," said Takoma Park Mayor Bruce Williams.

The city is "not there to be an arm of the federal immigration enforcement officers," said Susan Silber, the city's attorney.

The city's sanctuary law, passed in 1985, made it legal for immigrants to live in Takoma Park regardless of whether they had entered the country legally. It provided a welcome mat for those fleeing persecution or civil war, officials said.

Takoma Park Police were forbidden from asking about a person's immigration status and from working with federal immigration officers.

The law was updated by the council in 2007 to clarify that Takoma Park Police could not make further inquiries even if they saw a notice pop up during a routine stop that federal immigration officials had a warrant out for that person.

City officials rejected attempts by Police Chief Ronald Ricucci to be granted the power to investigate further.

"I wanted to be able to inquire, and if it was a felony, I wanted to be able to take action," he said.

Takoma Park's law contrasts sharply with anti-illegal immigration efforts in Frederick County. The county is participating in the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's 287(g) program, which allows participating local police officers to carry out some of the duties of federal immigration officers—such as housing illegal immigrants in their prisons.

Washington County Sheriff Doug Mullendore said he would like to bring that program to his county. But, he said, until it gets more prison bed space, it can't fully implement it.

"The majority of our people are trained to recognize whether or not they are illegal immigrants, but it's the correction side that we cannot fully implement at this point," he said.

Currently in Washington County, local police officers will contact federal officials if they have an illegal immigrant in custody. Federal officials have 48 hours to decide whether or not to pick them up.

Ricucci said those efforts in Western Maryland have not swayed Takoma Park's position. "We're doing our job just as well as we've always done it," he said.

He added he is confident the federal program will never be brought to Takoma Park—a city known for its liberal-leaning tendencies. It declared itself a "Nuclear-Free Zone" in 1983. And it allows residents to vote in local elections regardless of their legal status. Garrett Park, Somerset, Martin's Addition and Barnesville, all in Montgomery County, also allow non-U.S. citizens to vote in local elections, said Tom Reynolds, director of educational services at the Maryland Municipal League.

Many in Takoma Park, including immigrant-rights activist Whit Hutchison, have embraced the sanctuary. "I think it's great, it's one of the reasons I choose to live in Takoma Park," he said.

But others, such as Karin Anderson, who has lived in Takoma Park for 42 years, are concerned about the sanctuary's ramifications, including its potential impact on crime.

"I think that any time you can do anything about anything illegal, the police should be able to do that," said Anderson. "They can ask me for my papers. It doesn't bother me a bit."

The city has a higher-than-average immigrant population. According to data from the 2000 census, the most recent available, 28.6 percent of Takoma Park residents were foreign born, compared to 10.4 percent nationally and 9.8 percent in Maryland.

But Ricucci said he believes Takoma Park Police have a strong relationship with the immigrant population, and that relationship has helped keep the city safer.

Takoma Park's statistics for violent crimes, robberies and property crimes have held fairly steady between 2005 and 2009, according to the FBI. Between 2005 and 2009, violent crimes inched up from 96 to 104; robberies dropped from 66 to 54; and property crimes fell from 782 to 659.

Hyattsville, a nearby town with a similar population size, saw slight increases in some of its crime statistics in that time period: Violent crimes rose from 115 to 126, and robberies rose from 81 to 86. Property crimes jumped from 780 to 1,517.

Ricucci said if someone does something illegal in Takoma Park, legal resident or not, they will get arrested.

He does have some lingering concerns, though, about the sanctuary. "I still have concerns for citizen and officer safety, that the law could hinder us," he said.

"Is there a possibility there? Yeah, and I made that known to the council and the mayor ... and I still worry about that," Ricucci said.

"But, right now, it seems to work."

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