Election preview: County executive & sheriff of Anne Arundel, Frederick, Harford, and Washington counties, Maryland | 2018
ICE’s 287(g) program deputizes local officers to act as federal immigration agents, research the status of people held at the county jail, and detain people they suspect to be undocumented. Three Maryland counties are part of 287(g): Anne Arundel County (which is home to Annapolis, the state capital), Frederick County, and Harford County.
This partnership has strained the relationship between local government and residents. “It creates a climate of fear, particularly for the Latino community and communities of color,” Jose Perez, the deputy general counsel of LatinoJustice PRLDEF, told me. Immigrants are reluctant to contact law enforcement and broader public services, adds Elizabeth Alex, the senior director of community organizing at CASA of Maryland. “Parents particularly are opting to stay quiet and staying home, and not accessing services” that their children are eligible for, she told me.
Complicating matters, the power to join or terminate 287(g) agreements rests in different offices. In Anne Arundel, ICE’s agreement is with the county executive. In both Frederick and Harford the responsibility lies with the sheriff. Each of these three offices is on the November ballot. Each features a GOP incumbent who defends 287(g) against a Democratic challenger, typically by warning that quitting the program would mean releasing “criminals” “back onto the street,” as one sheriff put it—an argument that conflates crime and immigration and undermines due process; it also blurs the line between different grounds of detention since one is not being held on criminal charges if only held based on suspected immigration status. The script is inverted in a fourth county, Washington, where a GOP challenger to the Democratic sheriff is running on a pledge to join the 287(g) program.
Anne Arundel County
Anne Arundel County voted for a Democratic presidential candidate in 2016 for the first time in more than 40 years. But Steve Schuh, Anne Arundel’s Republican county executive, had his county join the 287(g) program soon after. Schuh has also overseen another deal with ICE: an agreement to detain immigrants on ICE’s behalf in exchange for payments.
In June, in the run-up to a protest family separation policies, Schuh’s Democratic challenger Steuart Pittman committed to withdrawing from both ICE deals. Pittman said he would use the freed-up jail space for a drug treatment facility. “Our biggest problem right now is beds for people who want drug treatment,” he told the Capital Gazette.
Schuh charges that Pittman’s positions would weaken public safety. “I am alarmed by my opponent’s plan to release illegal immigrants charged with serious crimes into the community,” reads a Schuh campaign mailer. But the people targeted under 287(g) are often arrested for low-level offenses like drug possession and disorderly conduct, Nick Steiner, an attorney with the ACLU of Maryland, told me. “I think [Schuh] is trying to ride this national bandwagon that the way to unite the right is to use immigrants as scapegoats,” Axel said.
The sheriff’s election features the same divide. Republican Jim Fredericks wrote a Baltimore Sun op-ed calling 287(g) “an extremely important public safety tool,” while Democrat James Williams supports dropping out of both ICE deals. “The bed space could be used for better purposes, such as, for the treatment of those with a mental health crisis,” he told me.
First elected in 2006, Sheriff Chuck Jenkins wasted little time before signing a 287(g) agreement in 2007—and he has been a staunch defender of the program ever since. He has testified about it in Congress or in Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s presence, and he called 287(g) a “real key piece of national security” at a public event last year.
Jenkins claims that the sheriff’s department has faced no racial profiling allegations since joining 287(g). But in 2009, a woman alleged she was profiled and arrested by local deputies while eating lunch. Federal courts later ruled in her favor, finding that she was unlawfully detained based on immigration status; a federal judge ruled in September that Frederick County is liable for damages. Perez told me that another woman has alleged being targeted by profiling in Frederick County earlier this year. “It appears that this is still ongoing,” Perez said, faulting the sheriff for creating a climate conducive to such violations. Jenkins came into office on a “lock them up, ship them back” message and kept up that rhetoric. “What do you expect deputies to do but to follow his lead?,” Perez asks.
In November, Jenkins faces Democrat Karl Bickel in a rematch of the 2014 election. Himself a former employee of the sheriff’s office, Bickel has not said whether he would end the 287(g) program. However, he proposes to conduct an audit. “Questions about the value of the 287g program need to be answered with accurate data,” according to his website. “We have more urgent priorities than immigration,” it says elsewhere on the site, referring to the opioid crisis.
Harford and Washington counties
Harford County (a traditionally GOP-voting county north of Baltimore) joined 287(g) in 2016 under the guidance of GOP Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler. In November, Gahler faces Christopher Boardman, a Democrat who says he would withdraw from the program. Boardman wrote a Dagger column in 2016 against Gahler’s decision to join 287(g), warning that this would entangle the county in legal battles and financial harm.
The roles are flipped in Washington County, which is not in 287(g). Here it is the challenger (Republican Brian Albert) who proposes joining it and frames undocumented immigrants as a threat to public safety. “We don’t have as bad a problem as some of the more urban areas, but we want to get ahead of it and tackling it before it does become a problem,” he told LocalDVM.com. The incumbent sheriff (Doug Mullendore, a Democrat) opposes joining 287(g), questioning whether it would be financially viable. This is a conservative county that voted for Trump by 30 percentage points, but Mullendore has been sheriff since 2006.
Update: Steuart Pittman defeated Anne Arundel County Executive Steve Schuh on Nov. 6, 2018. He indicated that he would quit the county’s 287(g) program in his inauguration speech, on Dec. 3, 2018. In Frederick County, Harford County, and Washington County, the incumbent sheriffs were all reelected; the former two favored remaining in the 287(g) program, while the third opposed joining the program.