Latino activists and clergy joined African-American leaders Tuesday to demand that Baltimore city establish a written policy prohibiting police from asking questions about immigration.
They made their case at an emotional — and, at times, confrontational — news conference in East Baltimore following a wave of violence against Latino men, including the most recent known victim, Martin Reyes, who was beaten to death on Saturday.
The city needs a formal statement “clarifying the fact that they are not here to enforce unjust immigration laws but rather to address criminal issues and violence,” said Rev. Robert Wojtek, of St. Michael’s and St. Patrick’s.
“We ask that this policy of de-linking the police force from the agencies of citizen enforcement be written, codified and become the established order of the city of Baltimore,” said Hector Rodriguez, of the Baltimore Episcopal Diocese, during the rally in Patterson Park.
Such a policy would foster more trust between immigrants and police and reduce crime, proponents said.
Asked to come to the microphone and respond to this request, city officials — who perhaps thought the event’s sole purpose was solidarity and condemning the hate — were taken aback.
“Judge us by what we’re doing,” said Baltimore Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III, telling the crowd that police officers, who have been sweeping through the community to reassure them following the alarming spike in attacks, are already instructed not to question people about their immigration status.
“I’ve been here for three years in this role, and you haven’t heard one utterance on enforcement of immigration laws,” Bealefeld said.
City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young, when his turn came, hedged: “The Latino community should not be afraid to call the police when they are victimized by crime.”
‘Yes, but where do you stand on a formal policy, people here are calling for a written policy?’ reporters pressed.
Councilmember James B. Kraft, whose district includes the area where the attacks have taken place, got right down to it.
Fear of “those crazies”
Such a policy would, he said, bring the heated national debate on immigration –the ugly Arizona version – to Baltimore.
“It’s very easy to say, ‘Let’s get a written policy.’ But then there’s someone who doesn’t want a written policy, and then we have these crazy people from all over the country coming to Baltimore to find out whether we’ll have written policy or not,” he said. “We do not have the time to have this debate. Our debate is about keeping these crimes off the street.”
Later, after the rally concluded, Kraft returned to this topic during a discussion with two women in the crowd who had been calling out “We need a written policy! Write it down!”
“It’s not just the Sarah Palin types. You do not know the calls I get, from people who live in this neighborhood who hate – who hate!” Kraft told them. “Do we want to whip them up?”
Vulnerable population targeted
Five Latinos, all of them Honduran, have been beaten in recent weeks. Jermaine R. Holley, the 19-year-old arrested for the killing of Reyes (he was clubbed and beaten with a wooden stake) told police he did it because he hated “Mexicans.” The Baltimore Sun reported that records showed Holley was being treated for schizophrenia. Police said Holley may have stopped taking his medications at the time of the attack.
Most of the other incidents were robberies, police said. Many Latinos who work in low-paying jobs work very late or very early hours, carry cash and walk because they have no cars and want to save money instead of taking public transportation, advocates said.
Coming up with some alternative form of banking for low-income people would help, said Kimberly Propeack, a spokeswoman for CASA of Maryland, the Latino advocacy group that was a prime organizer of Tuesday’s news conference.
Making area Latinos even more vulnerable is their widespread reluctance to talk to police for fear it could lead to questions about their immigration status and possible deportation.
“They all know a story of someone who ran a red light and was turned in to immigration. Every advocate says that this is a tremendous barrier,” Propeack said.
“Without a policy you can point to when someone comes into your office brutalized by a crime, it’s very difficult to get them to go to the police,” she said. Such policies have been implemented in Albuquerque and New Haven, advocates note.
“You’re just aware that there’s always this tension and fear,” said Maureen Daly, who works as a secretary at a Highlandtown church with a large Latino population. “We just had a stolen bike reported at the church and there was this thing of waiting for me, the person with the American passport, to report it.”
Lisa O’Reilly a member of the Archdiocese of Baltimore Immigration Coalition said that hate, ugly though it is, has to be confronted. She was talking about the racial hatred Kraft described.
“I mean, the man who was maybe mentally ill and said he did it (attacked Reyes) because he ‘hated Mexicans,’ where did he hear that?” O’Reilly said. “The rhetoric that’s out and about, that’s got to change.”
Another killing, another vigil
This was otherwise what the event was about — condemning the violence, mourning the deaths.
“We live in the same world, we breathe the same air, we eat and we sleep the same and we don’t understand why we are different,” said a girl who said her name was Stephanie, translating the words her mother spoke as she made a sign that said: “Stop the hate.”
Gaberella Ramos, 17, had the same message.
“I most definitely have sensed the racism,” said Ramos, president of her class at MercyHigh School. “‘Youshould go back to Mexico!’ Little remarks like that on the schoolbus.” Ramos and her father, Nicolas Ramos, oppose the idea of a written policy on enforcement of immigration laws.
“It’ s only going to fire those people who hate immigrants up . It would make it an argument between (the political) parties. It would shift the conversation,” she said.
It may be that the conversation is already shifted. Republican Delegate Patrick McDonough, who represents parts of Harford and Baltimore counties, has already condemned the idea of a written policy.
“They’re committing a criminal act. . .Stephanie Rawlings-Blake could be charged with a crime,” McDonough said.
In a phone interview, McDonough reiterated his vow to introduce in Maryland legislation like Arizona’s: allowing the police to stop and hold anyone suspected of being an undocumented immigrant.