Crowd packs room for immigration debate
CHESTERTOWN — A standingroom crowd filled the upstairs meeting room at Chestertown’s town hall Tuesday as the council heard residents’ concerns about immigration law and the role of immigrants in the community.
The crowd, many of whom held signs or wore T-shirts stating their views, was on hand because of reports that the council was going to vote on making Chestertown a “sanctuary city.” Sanctuary cities are those that limit their cooperation with immigration authorities by instruct- ing local law enforcement of
ficers not to report or detain undocumented immigrants in their jurisdiction.
On Jan. 24, President Donald Trump signed an ex
ecutive order that would cut federal funding for cities that adopt a “sanctuary city” pol
icy. The order also instructs immigration officials to target immigrants “who have committed acts that constitute a chargeable criminal offense.”
Many of those present at the council meeting were there in response to a letter from Tim Kingston, chairman of the Queen Anne’s County Republican Central Committee, which asked Re- publicans to “flood” the meeting to “show that here on the Eastern Shore the rule of law is still important.”
Mayor Chris Cerino, in an email to council members before the meeting, wrote, “there is no pending ordinance or legislation for the Council to vote on tonight — it’s simply a community discussion being driven by concerned citizens.”
Tuesday, Cerino opened the discussion by repeating that the council was not planning to vote on any measure related to immigration. He said the discussion was scheduled because he received numerous emails — “the most I’ve gotten in a single day about a single topic” — after an executive order banning immigrants from seven predominantly Muslim countries by Trump Jan. 27 caused delays and demonstrations at numerous U.S. airports.
Cerino read several emails he received, both supporting free immigration and warning against the danger the writers feel it poses. One of the latter, which he called his favorite, said “You can’t even take care of the people you have. Are you crazy?”
Cerino then turned the floor over to members of the activist group Indivisible, which formed a task force to address immigration issues.
Rosemary Ramsey-Granillo of Chestertown was the first speaker. She said the group was “seeking clarity on what lies ahead for families who either feel terrified or uncertain about their place in our country.” She said Kent County is home to 850 Latino community members, while Washington College has 145 international students from 37 countries.
She said the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency was ramping up raids around the country and in the local community. “This is a very real fear,” she said. “We want to know that our community will be a place of compassion and understanding for everyone,” she said.
Jan Elvin of Chestertown said the executive order requires local police to detain immigrants for ICE to pick up. She called it “a strain on our scarce local resources” to ask local police to spend time and money to perform tasks that are in the federal, not local domain.
Jan Eliassen, who emigrated to the U.S. in 1953 as a small boy, told of the “kind and generous” treatment he received from Americans when he arrived. He said he would “roll over in my grave in shame” if any of his descendants ever denigrates an immigrant.
Tim Fields of Kennedyville said immigrants are significant contributors to the economy of the area, working in restaurants and hotels and helping grow produce. He said losing immigrant workers would be a blow to the county. He said studies show that immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than native-born citizens, that they paid $10.6 billion in local and state taxes in 2010 and pay Medicare and Social Security taxes. Nor do they qualify for welfare or other benefits, he said.
Cerino said he had done a good deal of research on sanctuary city status. He said deportations under President Barack Obama were the highest in history, more than all other 20th-century presidents combined. “It’s not just a Republican or Democrat thing.”
He said many cities have balked at holding immigrants for ICE because of the cost of incarcerating them. But Chestertown doesn’t have a jail, so becoming a sanctuary city “doesn’t really make sense,” he said.
Cerino said anyone arrested in Chestertown is sent to the county detention center, so the town would have no role in interactions with ICE. He said he spoke to the Kent County Sheriff’s Office about the issue and was told that federal officials had not made a single request for the county to hold a prisoner for ICE.
Also, he said, Police Chief Adrian Baker told him that violent crime by illegal immigrants accounts for less than 1 percent of all cases. “As mayor, I have to make a cost-benefit analysis,” he said. “If ICE agents get ordered by Donald Trump to raid Kent County, is it really going to matter if we declare ourselves a sanctuary city? I don’t know the answer to that.”
Cerino then asked council members for their thoughts on the issue.
Councilwoman Liz Gross described her experiences when she immigrated to the U.S. from Canada in 1992 and became a citizen. She said that even as an English speaker from a friendly nation, she experienced personal indignities and high cost.
Gross said potential immigrants nowadays face even greater barriers when they come to escape danger in their home countries, to take jobs few Americans are willing to take. However, she said the issue is most properly addressed by the Kent County Commissioners.
She ended by saying that everyone except “full-blooded native Americans” is a descendent of immigrants.
Councilwoman Linda Kuiper focused on the potential cost to the town of adopting sanctuary status. She said it would endanger federal grants and loans amounting to as much as $2.5 million that the town has applied for.
She listed other potential negative effects including possible loss of the hospital, retirees deciding not to come to Heron Point and increased load on the Department of Social Services. She said the loss of benefits would have a negative effect on the town budget, including cuts in recreation, recycling and other popular programs.
Councilman Sam Shoge said he saw merits on both sides of the issue. “It’s really just a matter of what we do with our undocumented residents who are here now,” he said. Shoge said undocumented immigrants work very hard at jobs many Americans won’t take, “and there is a cost we pay when those jobs are not filled.”
Shoge said the immigration system needs to be reformed, and he hoped liberals and conservatives could come to a consensus on the issue. He told about his parents who immigrated legally and realized the benefits of the American dream.
He agreed the sanctuary city decision was ultimately an issue for the county, not the town.
Councilman Marty Stetson said the country is based on the rule of law, and that immigration laws are made on the federal level. “If you want them changed, tell your congressmen and senators. That’s where your gripe has to be. Don’t put us as a town in conflict with the (federal) government,” he said. He said local defiance of federal authority is what led to the Civil War.
Stetson described sanctuary city status for Chestertown as “as solution looking for a problem.”
Kingston, who is a retired police officer, said he was concerned with illegal immigration. He said ICE deported 360 criminal and 130 non-criminal immigrants from Maryland in 2015; in 2016, the totals were 340 criminal and 115 non-criminal. He said ICE doesn’t step in to deport immigrants until they have been identified by the legal system.
Kingston also cited the financial costs to the community from adopting sanctuary status. He said he asked the council to make sure it didn’t adopt any policy that would limit enforcement of customs.
Fields asked Kingston what his opinion was on a path to citizenship for immigrants.
Kingston said there is a path for those who come to the country legally. “If you come into the United States without going through customs, it’s called a crime,” he said.
Fields said ICE is detaining people who came in legally but have expired visas. “That’s not a crime,” he said. “It’s a civil offense.”
At this point, as several audience members began to speak at once and interrupt each other, Cerino cut off the discussion so the council could get to other agenda items.
Kingston said other speakers on the conservative side had not been allowed to speak.
Cerino said the conservative viewpoint had been stated by two council members in addition to Kingston. He said the speakers would be welcome to return to the council to present their side.
In addition to the comments at the meeting, state Sen. Steve Hershey, R-36-Upper Shore, and the other members of the District 36 delegation to the General Assembly wrote to Cerino Tuesday.
The letter, which Hershey copied to the Kent County
News, read in part, “The cost of Chestertown adopting sanctuary policies could become expensive. Sanctuary policies defy federal laws to which the state and local governments are bound, this could potentially affect federal grant monies that Chestertown, Kent County or Maryland could receive. As we advocate for funding at both the State and Federal level for operations and capital projects, we are concerned that such an action would have an adverse impact on our efforts.”
All told, the immigration discussion lasted slightly more than one hour.
From left, Maria Andujar, Annette DiMaggio and Karla Altamirano, all of Sudlersville, show signs supporting the immigrant community at the Chestertown Council meeting Tuesday.
Chestertown Mayor Chris Cerino states his position on sanctuary city status for the town at the Tuesday council meeting. Listening, from left, are Town Manager Bill Ingersoll and councilwomen Linda Kuiper and Liz Gross.