The Rockville City Council waded into the nationwide immigration debate Monday by approving an ordinance that prohibits the city’s police officers and other officials from enforcing federal immigration law or asking about a person’s immigration status.
The council approved the ordinance by a 3-2 vote. Council member Beryl Feinberg and Mayor Bridget Donnell Newton voted against the measure, while bill sponsor Julie Palakovich Carr and her council colleagues, Virginia Onley and Mark Pierzchala, supported it.
The ordinance’s passage will codify the city’s unwritten policy that city officers do not inquire about a person’s immigration status or cooperate with federal immigration authorities.
The local debate surrounding the legislation was a microcosm of the federal immigration debate that played a feature role in the 2016 presidential campaign. At a March hearing, more than 70 speakers weighed in on the policy—with supporters and opponents about evenly split on it.
On Monday night the situation was different. Most of the approximately 40 speakers supported the measure, saying it would create an environment in Rockville in which undocumented immigrants felt comfortable reporting crimes and providing information to police, which would improve public safety for all residents.
“What measures like this do is ensure that the federal civil rights of all individuals, including noncitizens, are protected,” Rockville resident Marianna Follingstad said. “It makes everyone safer.”
The 10 people who spoke against the measure said passing it would make Rockville a haven for undocumented immigrants, which would lead to more crime, overcrowded schools and disrespect for the rule of law.
Gail Weiss, a Bethesda resident who opposed the measure, said undocumented immigrants haven’t been properly vetted and have no loyalty to the U.S. Constitution.
“There’s no confirmation about whether they’re fleeing from persecution or prosecution,” Weiss said. “What cannot be argued is why anyone of you would take the chance of fostering an environment that would lead to one additional death at the hands of an illegal alien.”
Weiss said a grassroots effort in the county gathered tens of thousands of signature to put the term limits initiative on the Montgomery County ballot last year—a measure approved by about two-thirds of voters in November that limits County Council members and the county executive to three four-year terms. Weiss warned the Rockville City Council members that it would only take 1,800 signatures to launch a recall election in the city, which she suggested could happen if a serious crime is committed by an undocumented immigrant in the city.
Ray Jose, a Takoma Park resident who said he grew up in Rockville and identified himself as an undocumented immigrant, turned to the crowd during his testimony and criticized the arguments of the measure’s opponents.
“I’ve seen examples of local police and [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] collaboration,” Jose said. “I guarantee you it brings psychological terror to communities like mine. When you say illegal immigrants are taking our jobs, doing these horrible crimes, I ask that you think about the people who serve your food, clean your houses and watch your children.”
The council listened to about two and a half hours of public testimony before debating whether to approve the policy.
Onley noted the ordinance would not make Rockville a “sanctuary city.” Although Rockville police and city officials would not aid in federal immigration enforcement efforts, the city would continue to send people who are arrested to the Montgomery County Department of Correction and Rehabilitation, which shares information about suspects and convicted criminals with federal law enforcement.
In a May memo, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions defined sanctuary cities as jurisdictions that refuse to share information with federal officials about immigrants’ citizenship or legal status.
Palakovich Carr said she believes that definition means Rockville would not be at risk of losing any federal funds, which it has received in the past to pay for police items such as bullet-proof vests. She added she proposed the measure because “immigrants are an integral part of the Rockville community” and it will send a clear message that the city will treat all residents equally.
As an alternative, Feinberg proposed a motion that the city police chief and city manager write a policy rather than have the council pass the ordinance.
“Laws shouldn’t be drafted for political agendas or symbolism,” Feinberg said, kicking off a debate about the surprise motion that lasted for more than 40 minutes before it was voted down on a 2-3 vote.
Rockville Mayor Bridget Donnell Newton, who votes on bills with the council, supported Feinberg’s motion. She said “the venom has been spread on both sides of this issue” and that the ordinance may inhibit local officers from properly doing their jobs by preventing them from working with federal law enforcement agencies.
Referring to President Donald Trump’s policies, Donnell Newton said she “makes no bones about what’s going on at the federal level—I don’t support and I don’t like it.”
“But that doesn’t mean that we in the City of Rockville need to take up the mantle of the federal government,” Donnell Newton continued. “We need to talk about the big things that make everyone feel welcome in our city, that make everyone prosper in our city … every single person. I’m just really disappointed some are allowed to bring an ordinance in front of us and yet there’s a closed mind to considering [Feinberg’s] idea.”
Pierzchala responded that Donnell Newton had offered a “staggering speech… and not in a good sense.” He said Feinberg could have put forth the motion weeks or months ago to allow the council to debate it at length. Ultimately, he said it was the council’s responsibility to create laws that it believes are in the best interest of the public, even if they are controversial.
“This is making a law that this community believes in,” Pierzchala said.