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Immigrants, in Baltimore City fear Divide over Status Checks

By John Fritze and Erik Maza, The Baltimore Sun3:10 p.m. EST, February 25, 2012

Julio Cesar Ayala knew he was taking a risk when he decided to overstay his tourist visa four years ago, but he never expected to be threatened with deportation for climbing behind the wheel of the family’s silver minivan.

The 53-year-old Salvadoran was stopped by a Baltimore County police officer last year and had to admit that he didn’t have a driver’s license. Hours after he was handcuffed and separated from his 9-year-old granddaughter on the side of the road, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement received an automatic notification of his arrest through a controversial and burgeoning federal program called Secure Communities.

He spent nearly two weeks in jail for a traffic violation. He now faces a deportation hearing in April.

“I’ve never had any problems before,” said Ayala, a Cockeysville resident and grandfather to eight children born in the United States. “I feel trapped.”

Last week, the Department of Homeland Security expanded Secure Communities to Baltimore, which for years had not been included in the program. The federal agency’s move came despite objections from city leaders who believe it could harm the relationship between police and the Hispanic community. Many immigrants — documented and not — say they will be less likely to approach police to report a crime, even if they are victims, because they have heard stories like Ayala’s.

Baltimore public safety officials stress that police procedures will not change. The state has long been required to send fingerprints of those arrested to the FBI. Under the Secure Communities program, the bureau automatically transmits those prints to Homeland Security for review. The program, city leaders say, amounts to an electronic handshake between two federal agencies.

But that argument does little to calm immigrants’ fears in heavily Hispanic parts of the city such as Broadway in Fells Point, where signs advertise carne asada and Latin music blares from storefronts. There, people say, they worry that a traffic stop or a misunderstanding on the sidewalk is all that stands between their life here and deportation.

“Nobody’s safe,” said the Rev. Robert Wojtek of Sacred Heart of Jesus and St. Patrick’s, a Roman Catholic parish in Southeast Baltimore with a large Spanish-speaking congregation. “And people know that.”

Maryland has the 10th-largest population of undocumented immigrants in the country, an estimated 275,000, or nearly 5 percent of the state’s population, according to a study by the Pew Hispanic Center. Most of them are Hispanic.

Supporters of Secure Communities say that those caught in the system are breaking the law by being in the United States in the first place and should be deported. Federal immigration officials point out that the initiative has identified thousands who committed serious crimes after crossing the border.

City officials say they are less interested in the passionate national debate over immigration than in ensuring that the program does not affect their ability to keep Hispanic neighborhoods safe.

Implementation of the program — which began in 28 jurisdictions in 2008 and is being phased in across the country — comes at a critical time for Baltimore. After a spate of violence directed at Hispanics two years ago, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake‘s administration increased outreach to the community through a series of meetings and attempts to make Spanish-speaking translators more ubiquitous.

The effort helped, but some say Secure Communities threatens to undermine that progress.

Denis Sanchez, an undocumented 19-year-old who lives in Highlandtown, said he is concerned about the program. A serious, clean-cut Salvadoran, Sanchez is months away from high school graduation and intends to go to college. He worries that one misstep in front of a police officer could change everything.

“That all of my dreams, all that I’ve accomplished so far could come crashing down over something small would be hard to stomach,” Sanchez said. “It would be unfair.”

Legal immigrants raise similar concerns.

At Don Pedro’s Musica Latina on Broadway, owner Sandra Rivera said she’s not worried about herself — she’s been a citizen for years — but like many in the Hispanic community she knows many people who are undocumented. In her case, she worries about her 22-year-old nephew. For others it’s a parent, sibling or spouse.

Calling the police to report a crime, she fears, could bring scrutiny on undocumented relatives if they happen to be nearby when an officer arrives.

“The police here [are] friendly. They patrol the neighborhood often. I’ve never had a problem,” Rivera said from behind the counter of the store, an upbeat ballad playing in Spanish in the background. “But now, with this law, someone could be killing and robbing me and I wouldn’t call the cops.”

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