On one side of Maryland Avenue, Sebastian Gorka — the former deputy assistant to President Donald Trump — was leading a crowd of supporters in a chorus of boos against a recent Montgomery County executive order that reinforced a lack of cooperation with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
On the other side of the street, counterprotesters waving anti-ICE slogans were cheering along to speeches by Montgomery County officials and immigration activists.
The dueling protests, held in front of the Council Office Building in Rockville on Friday, were the latest high-profile reactions to an order that left county policies essentially unchanged but incited strong emotions on both sides of an ongoing national debate.
Proponents said the executive order enhances public safety by letting undocumented immigrants report and testify on crimes without fearing deportation. Opponents of the executive order, who called themselves the “silent majority,” argued that it emboldens undocumented immigrants and increases crime in the community.
“I think it’s absolutely terrible because it fails to protect us and it puts us in jeopardy,” said Gail Joyce, a Germantown resident who was born and raised in Montgomery County.
Joyce attended the rally with a friend who declined to give her last name to a reporter, citing fears of Trump opponents “doxxing” her — posting documents, or “docs,” with her personal information online. But Joyce, who woke up early to attend the protest, waved off the concerns.
“I’ve got guns and dogs,” she said with a laugh. “I don’t care.”
And the fact that more than 300 people traveled to Rockville to attend a pro-ICE rally, she added, should make Montgomery County officials sit up and take notice.
“I think it’s a sign of how deep our discontent really runs,” Joyce said. “We’re not going to stand by silent anymore.”
The divide between both sides often seemed as stark as the metal barriers separating the two protests.
The pro-ICE rally was organized by groups including Help Save Maryland, the Montgomery County Federation of Republican Women, and the Federation for American Immigration Reform, an organization that’s been defined as an anti-immigrant hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
The counterprotest, organized in response to the original rally, was hosted by organizations including CASA of Maryland, Takoma Park Mobilization, and the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington.
Both sides used the executive order as a launch point — part of the justification for organizing the protests — but they diverged when it came to talking points and even a basic interpretation of recent events.
For ICE supporters, the scrutiny was of eight highly publicized cases in which undocumented immigrants were charged with crimes since the executive order was issued in July. They’ve been cited on conservative blogs like the Daily Caller and criticized directly by the White House and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Acting Director Ken Cuccinelli, who linked the offenses to the recent executive order.
The charges, all related to sexual offenses, are a source of frustration to County Executive Marc Elrich and all nine county council members who supported the policy. Elrich and several council members were at the rallies and spoke to supporters.
“It’s the fact that they focus on these eight incidents — ignoring all the other crimes committed here — and try to use them as proof that Montgomery County is this hotbed of crime,” Elrich said in a phone interview after the rallies. “Well, there’s absolutely no data to support this.”
Crime in the county is actually decreasing according to data from the Montgomery County Police Department, Councilman Gabe Albornoz said at the counterprotest. Undocumented immigrants have no effect on violent crime, according to national research, and in Montgomery County, they’re actually less likely to commit crimes than the rest of the population.
“That’s from data we’re pulling internally,” Albornoz said. “So, I think there’s value in coming out here today and trying to correct a lot of the misinformation that’s being presented.”
The protests come at a time of increasing safety concerns for Montgomery County’s elected officials. The council recently held a closed session to address personal threats received by several members since the executive order was issued, Councilman Tom Hucker said. Elrich said he’s become accustomed to negative posts on his official Facebook page and direct threats sent into his office.
Many of the council’s critics were mobilized by a statement they issued in defense of the executive order, said local conservative blogger Dan McHugh.
The council criticized “inaccurate information spread by the White House, President Trump, Acting USCIS Director Ken Cuccinelli … and neo-Nazi sympathizers regarding our criminal justice system and its process,” which some conservatives took as a way to label any opposition to the executive order as supporting Nazi ideology.
“That was both inflammatory and unfair,” McHugh said at the protest rally. “No one out here today is a neo-Nazi, and I think it definitely sent people out in support.”
Many counterprotesters, though, expressed a lack for any tolerance toward ICE given the agency’s treatment of undocumented families.
“I just really don’t want to hear anything they have to say,” said Rockville resident Jesse White, serenading the opposite side with a loud series of boos. “You suck!” he added in the direction of an equally vocal conservative protester.
“I don’t like ICE very much,” he added. “I don’t want them to have any part in Montgomery County. They don’t treat people with respect, and I think we’re out here to show that they don’t represent the people who live here.”
Kate Masters can be reached at Kate.Masters@bethesdamagazine.com