Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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By many accounts, Lila Meizell was a nice lady who died a horrific death. The 83-year-old Wheaton resident was beaten and then burned alive in her home last year, a casualty of an alleged check-cashing scheme that went bad.

Despite the lurid headlines and public consternation, her murder might have been quickly forgotten, stored away in memory like so many other grisly crimes. But the three people in custody are all Salvadoran immigrants, including a man who had done yardwork for Meizell. So her death has become a new front in the political battle over illegal immigrants in Montgomery County.

Until Meizell’s murder and a series of other area homicides police say were committed by Hispanic immigrants, Montgomery County officials had clung to a sort of don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy when dealing with foreign-born residents; they left immigration enforcement to the feds.

All that changed last week, when the Montgomery County Police Department joined a growing number of law enforcement agencies in the D.C. metropolitan area that have stepped up scrutiny of immigrants. These days if you get arrested for handgun possession or a violent crime in Montgomery County, police will forward your name to federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents to find out if you are deportable.

The policy reversal is a blow to CASA of Maryland, one of the most influential immigrant advocacy organizations in the country. CASA Executive Director Gustavo Torres and other immigrant allies vigorously lobbied county officials against wading into immigration issues, warning that such a move could violate the Constitution and set police on a slippery slope toward racial profiling. They also raised the specter of civil rights lawsuits like the one CASA and the American Civil Liberties Union initiated against the Frederick County Sheriff’s Department.

But with the economy tanking and crime and anti-immigrant sentiment on the rise, Montgomery County Executive Isiah “Ike” Leggett bowed to the restive activists on the other side of the debate, who for more than a year had lobbed fiery op-ed salvos at CASA and pressed for more police enforcement of immigration laws.

The new rules don’t go as far as those imposed in Frederick and several Virginia communities. Instead of checking the status of every immigrant crossing their path, Montgomery police now notify ICE of arrests made for two dozen of the most violent crimes. Nevertheless, Leggett’s about-face leaves Montgomery County in curious company among other jurisdictions that have taken to aiding a federal immigration crackdown. How did this happen in CASA’s backyard?

When immigrants come to advocates at CASA of Maryland for help, there’s one thing they don’t need to worry about. “We will never give a single name to immigration authorities,” Torres declared earnestly to an audience of laborers in December in Langley Park, not far from the D.C. line.

It is the kind of statement that brings tears to the eyes of CASA members, many of whom are in the country illegally. But the stance also kindles emotion in the right-wing blogosphere, where Torres, 47, a naturalized citizen originally from Colombia, has been accused of such things as refusing to say the Pledge of Allegiance and denounced as a “domestic terrorist.”

Such attacks have intensified in recent years, says Torres, who has almost two decades’ experience in the immigrant advocacy business.

“We receive tons of hate e-mail all the time,” he says. “Anything that happens with my community—for good or for bad—I receive e-mail telling me how bad I am and how bad CASA is.”

Not everyone has stopped at words. In May 2007, someone set fire to the doublewide trailers that house the group’s Shady Grove center; though it did minimal damage, it was investigated by county police as a hate crime. Then, last May, CASA staffers received a couple of death threats that rattled Torres. He had security cameras installed and called in the Anti-Defamation League to provide advice and staff training.

“It can be tough to take,” Jennifer B. Freedman, CASA’s director of development, says of the threats, “but it just motivates us more, and it motivates our supporters, as well.”

Some Montgomery residents said they were surprised and disturbed by the anti-immigrant vitriol that followed the homicides.

Besides Meizell’s killing, Montgomery County Police arrested immigrants with alleged ties to the Hispanic gang MS-13 for two other 2008 homicides. In one of the cases—the Nov. 8 killing of 14-year-old high school honors student Tai Lam—police had previously arrested and released suspects Hector M. Hernandez and Gilmar L. Romero. Critics say Lam’s murder might have been prevented if police had learned that the two were in the country illegally during the earlier detentions. Romero was taken into custody briefly the previous June in Silver Spring for possession of a machete. Hernandez had a run-in with police after allegedly threatening a Northwood High School student with a switchblade in October, a month before Lam’s shooting.

Takoma Park City Councilor Doug Barry says people got whipped up by press coverage of the murders, particularly a Jan. 11 front page Washington Post story that chronicled rising fear among native-born residents of their immigrant neighbors.

“If you read the spate of publicity around the crimes, it touched off a frenzy of fear that all immigrants were carrying machetes and committing violent crimes, and that’s just not backed up by the facts,” says Barry.

Torres, too, traces the crackdown to those “horrendous crimes.”

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“That created a backlash for us and the county executive,” says Torres, who nonetheless finds a silver lining in the changes. While CASA will be watching to make sure the new policy doesn’t lead to racial profiling, its narrow focus, says Torres, may improve life in immigrant communities by removing criminals who prey on their neighbors.

Gustavo Torres, CASA executive director (Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

“Sometimes the policymakers are in a difficult situation,” he says. “But I truly believe our county executive is totally behind the immigrant community.…He’s a person who values and celebrates our community. And he did the right thing to protect our community.”

Soft-spoken and bespectacled, Torres comes off as more of a politician than an agitator. Since he became executive director in 1994, CASA has grown from just a few paid employees to 80 staffers and amassed a wide range of allies—politicians, nonprofit executives, and religious, community, and corporate leaders. Torres is on cordial terms with the executives of Montgomery and Prince George’s counties. He was a familiar face in Gov. Martin O’Malley’s 2007 election campaign and is part of a network of leaders representing immigrants on the national political scene.

CASA’s workers’ centers—where laborers, regardless of their immigration status, can come seeking jobs—have been hailed as a national model. The success of the centers earned Torres a trip to China last fall, courtesy of the Ford Foundation, to advise nonprofit groups there about how to organize the country’s estimated 200 million itinerant workers.

Helping often-undocumented laborers link up with employers, however, hasn’t earned Torres plaudits across the political spectrum. Brad Botwin is one example of Torres’ more outspoken detractors. Having founded Help Save Maryland about a year ago, Botwin would like to see CASA gone and county police coordinate closely with immigration officials.

“CASA is the problem. If CASA wasn’t here, there would be a lot less crime and gang problems in Maryland,” says Botwin. “I consider him a ‘domestic terrorist.’”

Botwin and other critics object to the assistance CASA gives illegal immigrants and government money the organization receives to run its workers’ centers and other programs. But what motivates them most are crimes, especially violent ones with immigrant suspects.

“The bottom line is people just don’t feel safe in Montgomery County anymore,” Botwin says.

There’s little evidence, however, that tinkering with immigration policy will impact public safety. Study after study has shown that immigrants, on average, commit fewer crimes than those born in the U.S. In a 2008 study, for instance, the Public Policy Institute of California found that while foreign-born Californians make up about 35 percent of the state’s adult population, they represent only about 17 percent of the state prison population. Men born in this country are 3.3 times more likely to end up behind bars. Even illegal immigrants, the researchers found, apparently have much lower incarceration rates.

“Noncitizen men from Mexico ages 18–40—a group disproportionately likely to have entered the United States illegally—are more than 8 times less likely than U.S.-born men in the same age group to be in a correctional setting,” the California researchers concluded.

Even in Montgomery County, where the highly publicized Meizell and Lam murders have prompted public hand-wringing and political flip-flopping, there has been no big increase in homicides. While serious crimes spiked by 7.7 percent in the first nine months of 2008, murders numbered 21, compared to 20 for the same period of 2007, according to county police. Montgomery remains a relatively safe place to live compared to neighboring Prince George’s County and the District, which both have much higher homicide rates.

While evidence suggests illegal immigrants aren’t perpetrating a crime wave in Montgomery County or anywhere else, county officials reacted much the same way public officials have elsewhere, according to Steven A. Camarota, director of research at the Washington-based conservative think tank the Center for Immigration Studies: As soon as an immigrant is charged in a high-profile crime, Camarota says, elected officials tend to “run for cover” by backing closer cooperation between police and immigration agents.

One reason for this may be a familiar TV storyline. In 2008, Media Matters for America, a left-leaning media watchdog, conducted a study of conservative talk show hosts Lou Dobbs, Bill O’Reilly, and Glenn Beck and reported that the three “served up a steady diet of fear, anger and resentment” against immigrants by harping on “myths” and “urban legends.” One of the most popular themes was the notion of immigrants running amuck. In 2007, Dobbs discussed connections between undocumented immigrants and crime in 94 shows, while O’Reilly and Beck flogged the idea on 66 and 29 shows, respectively.

One place with a robust relationship between local authorities and ICE can be found along Montgomery’s northern border. Last year, Frederick County Sheriff Charles A. Jenkins signed a memorandum of understanding with ICE allowing ICE agents to train and deputize the department’s officers under section 287(g) of the Immigration and Nationality Act.

The new deputies went to work last April 19. By the end of 2008, the department had identified 285 foreign-born detainees and started deportation proceedings against 260 of them, according to Capt. Tim Clarke, a department spokesman.

Jenkins has touted the program as a way to get violent illegal immigrant criminals off the streets and out of the country. But of the 285 foreign-born arrestees, only 23 are facing felony charges. The other 262 were picked up for misdemeanors that include driving without a license and traffic offenses.

Another eyebrow-raising statistic released by the department: All but five of the 260 sent into deportation proceedings are Hispanics, according to Clarke. But he says the overwhelming number of Latinos was not a sign of racial profiling.

“We’re not profiling individuals. That’s just not the case,” he says. “It just so happens that there is a large Hispanic population in the county.” (Five percent of the county’s residents are Hispanic and 8 percent are foreign-born, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.)

“If you come into our county and commit crimes,” he adds, “we’re going to start the process of getting you out of the country.”

But CASA attorney Kerry O’Brien, disputes, among other things, assertions that the program is making Frederick County safer.

“If you don’t have a valid license, you can now be deported. We think that’s ridiculous. That’s not helping public safety,” says O’Brien, who is part of a CASA legal team suing the department to determine whether the deputies used racial profiling and other unconstitutional pretexts to arrest immigrants. “We believe there have been cases of driving while brown and walking while brown.”

Federal immigration officials say the 287(g) program is one of its top partnership initiatives. But it has been mired in controversy and has failed to attract much support from police agencies around the country. Since the Bush Administration first started deputizing local law enforcers following the 9/11 attacks, federal officials have signed up only 63 police agencies nationwide—including nine in Virginia. Immigrant advocacy groups in other states have sued over the 287(g) program, deriding it as a costly and unconstitutional waste of taxpayer dollars.

In Montgomery County, about one in three of its 930,813 residents is foreign-born, making it one of the more international counties in the country, according to the Census Bureau. And Montgomery has long enjoyed a reputation for welcoming immigrants—even the illegal ones. While Northern Virginia started passing measures designed to drive illegal residents out of the area a few years ago, the Montgomery city of Takoma Park, for instance, reaffirmed its long-standing status as a sanctuary city, where police are forbidden from asking about immigration status for any reason.

The county is also racially and ethnically diverse, with nearly 130,000 Hispanic residents making up 14 percent of the population. It’s part of a statewide trend. While Montgomery and Prince George’s counties have the largest concentrations, Hispanics are the fastest-growing group in Maryland and a fledgling political force.

Kimberly Propeack, lobbyist for CASA
(Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

“We’re helping to shape, but also riding a wave, of increased power and impact of the Maryland immigrant community,” says Kimberly Propeack, a lobbyist for CASA.

So, why hasn’t CASA been able to fend off this new policing policy in a county it considers a stronghold and where it has ties to Leggett and other local leaders?

“Two years ago, this would not have been able to happen,” says State Delegate Ana Sol Gutierrez, a Democrat and former president of CASA’s board of directors, who represents Montgomery County in Annapolis.

“We’ve had a very progressive and supportive environment here. Now that we’re in this economic crisis, (Hispanics) are being scapegoated as the latest immigrant group,” says Gutierrez, who sees the growing hostility as a byproduct of “the very organized rightist groups” in Northern Virginia and beyond.

“This is not a grassroots thing formed in Gaithersburg,” Gutierrez says, referring to the hometown of Botwin, the Help Save Maryland founder.

Botwin says his group works in “a loose affiliation” with the like-minded organizations in the D.C. metropolitan area. Most are offshoots of “Help Save Manassas” started by Virginia blogger Greg Letiecq. There is even a Washington-based outfit, DefendDC, that’s part of the tri-state coalition, says Botwin. But he denies suggestions that the group is part of an organized national movement.

His all-volunteer organization runs into the hundreds, he says, and there are several chapters throughout the state. But Botwin, a prolific letter-to-the-editor writer, at times has seemed like a one-man battering ram, hammering Leggett about the homicides and his ties to CASA.

All that battering paid off last month, when Botwin and a few supporters landed their first meeting with the county executive’s staff. Leggett himself turned up for part of the meeting, when he had sent aides to talk to Torres and the other immigrant advocates earlier the same week.

After months of behind-the-scenes wrangling, Leggett released a carefully worded memo to County Police Chief J. Thomas Manger on Feb. 10 that gives both sides a little of what they want. And both claimed partial victory.

“We see that the county executive has really pulled back from the original proposal,” Gutierrez says. “We think that he heard us. His recommendation could have been a lot worse.”

The proposal first made public by Manger late last year would have given his officers more of a role in asking about immigration status when making arrests in a wide range of weapons and violent crimes charges.

Ultimately, Leggett bowed to concerns from immigrant advocates and narrowed the list to 24 of the most violent crimes, including murder, rape and carjacking. He also limited the new rules to handgun possession, rather than possession of a larger scope of weapons, to address worries that the original approach could have triggered status inquiries in more than half of all arrests. In another nuance apparently crafted to avoid racial profiling, police won’t try to distinguish between native- and foreign-born arrestees. Instead, they’ll forward the names of everyone arrested for the crimes to ICE and leave it to federal agents to determine who is here illegally. It’s a tweak the immigrant advocates also embraced.

For Botwin, it’s an encouraging first step, although “it’s woefully short of what’s needed to protect the citizens of Montgomery County.” He’s pushing for Montgomery to adopt Frederick County’s approach. “We will be continuing to pressure our public officials not just in the county but throughout the state to remove illegal immigrants.”

Although it didn’t wow Botwin, the policy is a big departure for Leggett, who has such strong ties to the area’s immigrant communities that Thomas E. Perez jokingly referred to him as “the first Latino elected official in Montgomery County” at a press conference in December. (Leggett is African-American.)

Perez, a former Clinton Administration official and currently Maryland’s Secretary of Labor, Licensing, and Regulation, has had a long association with CASA. Both Montgomery and Prince George’s counties pay CASA millions of dollars each year in social services contracts and have put up additional funds to help build the organization’s future headquarters in Langley Park.

“It’s obvious, looking at Leggett’s positions, that he’s tried to stay away from this issue. But now that he’s getting pushback he’s had to make tough choices,” says Michael Cain, director of the Center for the Study of Democracy at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. He called the new policy “a very clever document” and political win for Leggett.

“He’s agonized over it. That’s clear. He hasn’t taken it lightly,” says City Councilor Barry, who would have preferred police stay out of immigration enforcement altogether but was pleased that Leggett had taken pains to avoid racial profiling.

At this point, it’s unclear what impact the new policy will have on the streets of Montgomery.

Judith Freidenberg, an anthropologist at the University of Maryland’s College Park campus who has worked with immigrants in Prince George’s County, says the new rules may make people reluctant to cross into Montgomery for work, medical treatment, and social services that they have come to rely on.

But Gutierrez says many are already

fearful thanks to a previous change in policing tactics.

“Ike already stepped into that area a year and a half ago,” says Gutierrez, referring to the county’s 2007 decision to detain people on outstanding immigration warrants added to the FBI’s National Crime Information Center database in recent years. While those warrants are civil, not criminal, county officials maintained that police couldn’t ignore them. But the ensuing arrests spread fear throughout the immigrant community and eroded trust in police, Gutierrez says.

On a weekly basis, she says, “we see…people who are stopped for a broken taillight” and then disappear into the deportation process.