An Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent in 2011, via Homeland Security

After a failed attempt by Howard County lawmakers to stop police from helping federal agents deport local residents, the police department has clarified that it doesn’t plan to start doing so anyway.

The Howard County Police Department on Friday published its updated policies online for dealing with “foreign-born individuals.” In a nutshell, the department said it already doesn’t stop people to ask them about their immigration status, but wanted to publicly reaffirm that rule as the feds are ramping up deportations of people illegally residing in the United States.

Among the rules re-stated by the department:

  • Officers don’t ask about immigration status, unless an investigation yields suspicions of human trafficking, terrorist activity or gang violence.
  • Police can’t enforce federal immigration law. They also don’t call Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to arrest anyone for violating U.S. immigration law.
  • Under certain circumstances, officers will help crime victims and their families with obtaining visa protections if they cooperate with police.
  • A biggie: “Officers are prohibited from detaining an individual based solely on a civil federal immigration violation.”

The department’s re-affirmation of these policies is unlikely to please Attorney General Jeff Sessions, President Donald Trump or any other Americans who also support forcibly removing millions of refugees and immigrants who sought better lives in the United States by coming here under the radar. However, Howard Co. Police Chief Gary Gardner said in a statement that he felt it was necessary to assuage any fears from residents in his jurisdiction.

“We know this has been an issue of concern for some in our community. We want to do everything we can to reassure people in Howard County that our police department does not enforce civil violations of federal immigration laws,” Gardner said.

Council members Calvin Ball and Jennifer Terrasa nearly managed to codify these policies in county law this past winter, proposing a sanctuary bill to protect undocumented residents from federal immigration agents. However, after the council passed the measure, Republican County Executive Allan Kittleman vetoed it, saying the proposal could compromise the jurisdiction’s ability to reign in federal dollars under the Trump administration and jeopardize county-federal collaborations, such as one police there have joined to root out gangs.

That political history makes it all the more interesting that Kittleman apparently helped the county police department craft its new restatement of its immigration enforcement policies.

“I appreciate the steps our police took by communicating our existing practices with the community and, with the community’s input, turn those practices into a written policy that can be shared with our residents,” Kittleman said in a statement. “We want everyone to know that our police are here to protect everyone who calls Howard County home.”

Councilman Jon Weinstein, who voted against Ball’s and Terrasa’s proposal in February, in a statement commended the document as “a collaborative policy that reflects the values of our community.”

Howard County has now joined picked a side in an emerging chasm between local police departments on the subject of officer-aided deportation. The Baltimore County Police Department similarly now bars its ranks from helping the feds deport residents under an executive order issued by County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, and Baltimore City police officials have reassured the city’s immigrant communities that they won’t be joining Trump’s effort to remove the undocumented en masse.

Harford County and Frederick County, meanwhile, have joined a federal program in which their officers can identify undocumented inmates in local jails and pass their names on to ICE. Anne Arundel County is also applying to join the program.

With this divide beginning to emerge more clearly last month, Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh published advice on the matter of police enforcement of federal immigration law. In part, he wrote, “the federal government may not force state or local officials to carry out federal law, either directly or indirectly through the withdrawal of unrelated federal funding.”

He also noted that assisting ICE agents “may increase the risk of unconstitutional profiling.”

Ethan McLeod is a freelance reporter in Baltimore. He previously worked as an editor for the Baltimore Business Journal and Baltimore Fishbowl. His work has appeared in Bloomberg CityLab, Next City and...