BY BEN SIMASEK — A large and passionate crowd of Hyattsville residents packed the municipal building on Monday, March 20, to share and hear perspectives on the city’s proposed ordinance to establish Hyattsville as a “sanctuary city.” This was the second opportunity for residents to weigh in on the issue in council chambers, after an initial public hearing on March 1. The local H.O.P.E. listserv has also come alive with comments, both from residents in favor of and those opposed to the ordinance. During the public comment section of the council meeting, four residents voiced opinions opposing the measure, while 11 expressed their support of becoming a sanctuary city.

Some expressed concerns about potential unintended consequences of calling Hyattsville a sanctuary city, including the possible loss of federal funds and the fear that the designation could make the community a target. Many opponents of the ordinance also worried that it would put the city’s police department at risk of defying federal or state laws.

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A group of students from Rosa Parks Elementary School voiced their support for the sanctuary city ordinance at the city council meeting March 20. Photo by Ben Simasek

Several community members spoke out about the fear and uncertainty that they feel in the current climate. A group of students from Rosa Parks Elementary School shared their heartfelt pleas to protect their undocumented family members from being taken away from them.

In the past few weeks, councilmembers have worked closely with the city’s attorney and the Hyattsville City Police Department (HCPD) to address legal or procedural questions and clarify any ambiguous language. The HCPD underscored the need to collaborate with federal agencies on criminal investigations unrelated to immigration and to defer to federal or state authorities when necessary. This input resulted in important changes to the initial draft legislation. At the council meeting, the city’s attorney and police chief shared the viewpoint that the revised document clearly delineates the responsibilities of local police and federal law enforcement agencies without hindering either from enforcing the laws under their respective jurisdictions.

As a result of this collaborative process, E.I. Cornbrooks, the city attorney, said, “we have arrived at a compromise that allows the city to legislate in an area where it has the lawful authority to do so with built-in exceptions so that the city mitigates to the extent possible any potential violations of federal, state, or other law.”

“There is nothing in this ordinance that is intended to prevent, as I drafted it, law enforcement from enforcing criminal law,” Cornbrooks added.

HCPD Chief Douglas Holland said that the new ordinance is consistent with recommendations of the President’s Task Force for 21st Century Policing, adopted by HCPD last year, to “decouple” local police agencies from immigration enforcement. He agreed that establishing Hyattsville as a sanctuary city enhances public safety and aligns with best practices in community policing.

“Our agency has been working very hard for many years to gain the trust of the public and to make people feel comfortable coming to us, particularly if they are victims of crime,” Holland said.

“Myself and the other officers of this agency feel very comfortable with this draft as it is written, and it does allow us to continue the type of policing and the practices that we have been in the past,” Holland added, stating that “we do support this.”

Councilmember Patrick Paschall (Ward 3), who helped draft the legislation, responded to a list of questions posed by the Police and Public Safety Citizens Advisory Committee. He pointed out that current laws do not mandate that local police departments engage in immigration enforcement and no federal statute prevents local governments from prohibiting the use of city resources for this purpose.

Citing the federal law, Paschall said, “our ordinance doesn’t defy immigration or federal law in any way, shape or form.”

Addressing the concern about a loss of federal funds, Paschall cited that an average of $22,000 (less than 1% of the city’s policing budget) comes from federal grants each year and that there is no legal risk of losing current funding sources.

Paschall emphasized that while this legislation does not change the way the Hyattsville police have always operated, the intent behind it is to ensure that any future attempts to change local policing practices must undergo a public process. He also stressed the importance of sending a reassuring and welcoming message to Hyattsville residents.

Mayor Candace Hollingsworth agreed, saying that “this is an opportunity to show that we care and we protect our residents.”

Councilmember Thomas Wright (Ward 3), another initial sponsor of the measure, closed his remarks by expressing his appreciation for all of the public engagement around this issue and his pride in Hyattsville, saying “the root of a community is the strength of the family … Let’s keep our families together and be a community of compassion.”

As the meeting adjourned and attendees began to file out, several joined in a resounding chant of “No papers, no fear!”

Hyattsville Residents can read the current draft version of the proposed sanctuary city ordinance here and share their thoughts on this issue in Speak Up Hyattsville’s public forum, which closes April 18.