County leaders mull tighter rules for illegal immigrants accused in serious crimes
This story was updated on Dec. 3 at 1:46 p.m.
In the wake of public outcry over three recent homicides allegedly committed by illegal immigrants, Montgomery County State's Attorney John J. McCarthy, the county police chief and other county leaders are looking closely at stricter guidelines for handling suspects of serious crimes who are in the country illegally.
In at least two cases, the suspects are illegal immigrants who had previously been released from custody for other crimes. The director of the county corrections department said that eight of the 16 murder suspects currently in custody have federal immigration warrants against them.
Spurred by McCarthy and Police Chief J. Thomas Manger, some county officials want to take a "more proactive approach" that would prevent the release of illegal immigrants suspected of serious crimes while they await judicial proceedings, said Council President Philip M. Andrews (D-Dist. 3) of Gaithersburg.
County leaders have not yet defined what additional powers police or others might be given, but a consensus is emerging that something needs to be done, said Councilman George Leventhal (D-At large) of Takoma Park who said he has "great confidence" in Manger's ability to find the right balance between fighting crime and keeping the trust of the immigrant community.
"We're talking about the people who are clearly undesirable," said Leventhal, a vocal advocate for immigrants. "These are not people we want in Montgomery County."
Both Leventhal and Andrews said county officials have been privately discussing the issue for several weeks. On Monday, McCarthy met with a group of Latino leaders in the morning and with County Executive Isiah Leggett in the afternoon. Last week, Manger sought input from his Latino advisory group, according to participants.
At the center of the outcry are illegal immigrants Hector Mauricio Hernandez of Takoma Park and Gilmar Leonardo Romero of Silver Spring who were charged last month with murder in the shooting death of Tai Lam, 14, of Silver Spring on a Ride On bus. Hernandez, 20, was out on bond awaiting trial on an October weapons charge, according court records. Romero, 20, was arrested on June 24 for a concealed weapon; the charge was dropped and he was released on June 30.
In June, a popular waiter at the Red Robin restaurant at Lakeforest mall was stabbed to death by an 18-year-old Honduran — six weeks after he was caught by police with marijuana at an elementary school. Manuel Antonio Barahona of Gaithersburg pleaded guilty to second-degree murder last month.
In August, a Silver Spring man died after allegedly being attacked with a metal bat by a roommate's brother. Jose Zavala, 29, is in county custody for that death after being extradited from Texas in September.
And in October, Jose Garcia-Perlera, 33, of Hyattsville was charged in the September death of an elderly Bethesda woman. He was charged in 2000 for a series of burglaries in New York. He was released from police custody pending trial but did not show up in court, according to police in New York.
Critics point to cases like these as evidence that the county needs to take a harder line on illegal immigrants.
Lam's death was a "preventable tragedy," said Susan Payne, an outspoken critic of the county's stance on illegal immigration, at a public forum with the County Council two weeks ago in Gaithersburg.
"We are living in a county where a 14-year-old child is murdered on a Ride On bus by people who are in this country not only illegally but are criminals," she said to a round of applause from the audience. "When are we going to … start protecting the lives of citizens in this county and stop continuing these sanctuary city policies that are killing elderly people [in] home invasions and now 14-year-old children on Ride On buses?"
Current county protocol, which has been closely scrutinized, requires police officers to alert federal agents when routine background checks on individuals indicate the person has an immigration warrant, but county police do not initiate their own investigations into immigration status. The county holds the person for up to 72 hours while they wait for federal agents to take custody.
Illegal immigrants are not prevented from being granted bond.
In an interview Monday, McCarthy said it was "premature" to specify what steps the county might take to tighten restrictions but said they could take shape as early as January.
Manger declined requests for an interview.
The county's stance on immigration has remained nearly unchanged since 2003, with Manger and Leggett steadfast in their position to not enroll in the federal program that deputizes local police with the powers of federal immigration agents. Frederick County enrolled in the program, known as 287g, in the spring and has since transferred more than 220 illegal immigrants to federal authorities, according to Casa of Maryland, an immigrant advocacy group that has been tracking the issue.
Montgomery County's willingness to consider stricter rules comes as a surprising and unwelcome turn for some immigrant advocates, who for years have called on county leaders to keep the policy as is.
Not only will it further erode community trust in the police, it also might cross the "fine line" to racial profiling, said Grace Rivera-Oven, a longtime Latino advocate.
"This issue is not as easy as people want it to be," said Rivera-Oven, who meets regularly with county leaders. "It's not as simple as, ‘Oh, all our problems are going to go away because we're checking people's status.' [Immigration] is just an ingredient in the whole thing, and frankly, it's a small ingredient," she said.
"This is more a systematic issue of us not having very good guidelines for keeping people off the streets and frankly, I don't think it is going to make a difference," Rivera-Oven added.