The usually civil political discourse in Montgomery County turned aggressive over the weekend as residents who oppose the county’s liberal policy toward undocumented immigrants angrily emerged in reaction to the brutal alleged rape of a Rockville High School freshman girl by 17- and 18-year-old recent Central American immigrants.
“People are angry, people are nervous, people are concerned,” County Council President Roger Berliner said Monday morning during his weekly press conference. “I’ve gotten some very ugly emails accusing us of being a sanctuary county.”
The county and City of Rockville for many years have had a policy in place that directs their police officers not to ask about an individual’s immigration status during interactions. However, the county and city both share information about individuals who are arrested with federal agencies such as the FBI and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in case those agencies have pending issues with the individuals. This policy, according to county officials, is different from true sanctuary jurisdictions that don’t cooperate with federal immigration agencies.
Some local residents believe the county’s immigration policy and welcoming statements toward undocumented immigrants have made the county a destination for individuals entering the country illegally.
The two high school students arrested and charged Thursday with rape in the Rockville High case are Henry Sanchez, 18, and Jose Montano, 17. Sanchez, who resided in Aspen Hill and arrived from Guatemala about seven months ago, while Montano, of an unconfirmed address, arrived from El Salvador about eight months ago, according to ABC7.
Matthew Bourke, an ICE spokesman, wrote in an email Monday to Bethesda Beat that ICE issued a detainer for Sanchez on Thursday after he was arrested by county police on the rape charge. Bourke wrote that ICE can’t comment on Montano’s case because he is a minor.
Bourke also noted that a border patrol agent interacted with Sanchez in August 2016 in Rio Valley Grande, Texas, and the agent determined Sanchez unlawfully entered the U.S. from Mexico. Sanchez was issued a notice to appear before an immigration judge for a hearing that has not yet been scheduled, according to Bourke. Bourke said an immigration judge never issued Sanchez a deportation order.
Both students speak limited English and were enrolled in Rockville High School as freshmen, according to The Washington Post. They’re accused of raping the 14-year-old girl inside a boys bathroom on Thursday morning during school hours and were ordered held in jail without bond Friday.
Since news broke Friday about the arrest of the two young men, county residents and others have been expressing and posting their opinions online, often using heated rhetoric.
“It’s horrific,” Bethesda resident Gail Weiss said in a phone interview Monday about the alleged crime. “In my view this is exactly what sanctuary policies do. It is not just the quote unquote good illegals that come and take advantage of safe harbor policies—you get the worst of the worst.”
Weiss said she had been following Help Save Maryland’s coverage of the incident. The blog, run by Montgomery County resident Brad Botwin, aims to preserve “Maryland’s counties, cities and towns from the negative effects of illegal aliens,” according to its “about” page.
Since Friday, Help Save Maryland has created six posts about the incident that range from publishing part of The Washington Post story describing the alleged crime to urging supporters to contact representatives considering voting for state bills that could increase protections for undocumented immigrants.
In February 2016, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) labeled the group “nativist extremist” for confronting undocumented immigrants and businesses that hire them. Botwin has dismissed the SPLC label and believes the law center has no justification for it.
Over the weekend, Help Save Maryland members included Bethesda Beat on an email chain that featured comments by Botwin and former Rockville City Council member Tom Moore. The discussion on a Twinbrook email listserv centered on an ordinance before the Rockville City Council that would codify the city’s existing policy of not requiring its police officers to ask about an individual’s immigration status. Moore had previously spoken at a public meeting in favor of the ordinance.
Botwin described the ordinance as a “neo-Confederate plan” that would make the area more dangerous. Moore responded by calling Botwin “a vile racist.”
“Your eagerness to use a horrifying crime against a child to score a political point is disgusting,” Moore wrote.
Moore’s response was shared with local news reporters and then other responses flowed in.
“The only racist I see here is you,” Jeff Werner, the social media director for Help Save Maryland, wrote back. “You turn your back on law abiding citizens and support criminal aliens and gangs. It would be a shame if you would somehow be effected by a criminal alien attack on your family.”
Moore shot back, “Jeff, I will speak out against your hate group as much as I can, as often as I can, in as many ways as I can, for as long as I can. You don’t scare me.”
Botwin responded by calling Moore an “anti-Semitic piece of trash” and accusing him of supporting immigration policies that enabled the alleged rape to take place.
Moore and Botwin did not immediately respond to requests for comment about the issue Monday.
Julie Palakovich Carr, the Rockville City Council member who introduced the immigration ordinance, said Monday the council has heard from residents who are concerned about the safety of students at the high school as well as about the bill under consideration.
“In terms of the response [to the bill], the mayor and council have received an outpouring of emails on both sides of the issue,” Palakovich Carr said. “But there have been more in support of the ordinance.”
She said the council plans to hold a work session on the proposed ordinance with the city’s police department in April, which will be the next time the proposal is discussed in public. She also said she won’t withdraw the proposal because of the alleged crime.
“I do not believe the crime at the high school is representative of our immigrant population,” Palakovich Carr said. “We want to make sure Rockville is a safe place. If someone commits a horrible crime, that information will be shared with the FBI and ICE. But the rest of our immigrant population shouldn’t have to live in fear.”
She did say that the mayor and council received one threatening email over the weekend that they reported to police, but she declined to provide further details.
Montgomery County Public Schools Superintendent Jack Smith posted an open letter to the community Sunday saying MCPS can’t provide additional details about the incident due to the ongoing investigation, but that officials are looking into security at Rockville High.
Berliner said he has no reason to question MCPS policies that are created by school leaders and the county’s Board of Education. While some have questioned why the older teens were enrolled as freshmen, he said he understood the two suspects were placed in freshmen classes because of their limited ability to speak English.
“How hard is it to succeed in school not knowing English?” Berliner asked, before adding that students are put into the class that gives them the best chance to succeed.
“I think MCPS policies are grounded in a certain truth—that you want to put these kids in a place in the system where they can catch up, where they have a chance for success,” Berliner said. “Bad things happen. This is an awful thing that happened.”
However, he adamantly disagreed with public allegations raised in a question from a reporter that the county may be coddling undocumented immigrants.
“We do not coddle those who violate the privilege to be here in our community,” Berliner said. “To the extent we are quote coddling—we are coddling people who have been in this community for 25, 20 years and have never done anything wrong other than work one, two or three jobs, raise a family and be part of our community. They have done nothing wrong other than be here quote undocumented.”
County Executive Ike Leggett issued a statement Monday afternoon saying he was “sick and disgusted” about the alleged crime. He said county police Chief Tom Manger is working to ensure the high school is safe and also investigating the incident.
After the arrests, ICE issued detainer orders for both suspects, according to county spokesman Patrick Lacefield.
Leggett said in his statement that if Sanchez and Montano are convicted, “the county—consistent with our longstanding policy—will cooperate fully with ICE to see that the two are deported to their countries of origin.”