GAITHERSBURG — Members of the immigrant advocacy group United We Dream came to City Hall Monday night to urge Mayor Jud Ashman and the City Council to designate Gaithersburg as a “Freedom City.”
The group’s organizers cited as an example Austin, Texas, which recently declared itself a Freedom City in response to the state legislature passing Senate Bill 4, which permits police to ask the immigration status of anyone arrested or detained. Austin passed an ordinance requiring officers who ask immigrants their status to also state that these questions need not be answered.
Members of United We Dream previously had come to a City Council meeting May 7 and urged Ashman and the Council to pass a “restoring community trust” ordinance that would prohibit city police from cooperating with federal immigration authorities. Numerous members who testified argued that such an ordinance would help immigrants feel safer about approaching city agencies.
“We have a policy for our police department that they are not empowered and do not have the resources to enforce federal immigration laws,” Ashman said at that meeting. “When police speak to members of our community, they are not checking documentation…I do feel that we have resolved ourselves on this issue.”
Some members of United We Dream regard this stance as inadequate and are pushing the city to codify its noncompliance policy.
“We met with the mayor, and he said he was with us, that he supported immigrants, but that’s not enough,” said Claudia Quinonez, D.C. and Maryland field director for United We Dream. “We need more than words; we need actions. We need the city to send a strong message that they stand with the people, such as the immigrant, Muslim, and LGBTQ communities, who are being targeted by the current administration. There were ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) raids in Montgomery Village at an apartment complex last week, and in D.C., so it could happen here, too.”
“I came here in 2002 when I was four years old,” said Luz Chavez, a United We Dream member who testified Monday. “I’m here today fighting so that my parents won’t have to live with the fear of being deported. I’ve gone to every Gaithersburg school. This is my hometown, the only home I remember. My uncle was deported just for a small mistake at the Metro. He went past with his luggage and forgot to scan his card. Right then and there police authorities arrested him. He was already under court proceedings, and they just deported him the next week.”
Chavez is a beneficiary of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which the Trump Administration has targeted for elimination.
“My brother is a U.S. citizen. It means much more to him, because he’d lose his whole family if we were deported,” Chavez said.
“I came here when I was four,” said Christian Ramirez, another United We Dream member who testified Monday night. “We left El Salvador because of the violence, and my mom wanted a better future for her family. I just graduated from high school. I would like to be a lawyer, ultimately, and defend people who can’t defend themselves.”
During his testimony, Ramirez related that he had turned down scholarship offers elsewhere in favor of attending Montgomery College because he was afraid of being separated from his family.
“I think there are dangers to these sorts of ordinances that those who advocate for them don’t fully appreciate,” said Council Member Michael A. Sesma. “We’ve seen that in other municipalities. Declaring yourself a ‘Freedom City’ announces the presence of undocumented immigrants to the federal authorities, and then the cities don’t have the resources to defend them. My story is a bit different than that of the people here tonight.”
The Sesma family was in California before it was part of the United States.
“My mother was an immigrant from Japan. I sympathize with their struggles and concerns. I identify as Latino, and I’ve been profiled in the past, but I do think there are dangers in what they are seeking.”
After testifying, the United We Dream members held a rally outside City Hall chanting: “Undocumented, unafraid,” “Up, up with liberation, down, down with deportation,” and other slogans.
Gaithersburg Police officers directed them to move to the sidewalk as the rally was disrupting the Council meeting.