On June 19, Rockville became only the third city in Maryland to pass an ordinance limiting the role of its local police in enforcement of federal immigration law, following Takoma Park in 1985 and Hyattsville earlier this year. After nearly four months of advocacy, supporters of the Fostering Community Trust ordinance,  including many members of the Montgomery County Civil Rights Coalition (MCCRC), erupted in applause after a majority of City Councilmembers raised their hands in favor of the measure, which enshrines an unwritten Rockville City Police (RPD) policy into law.
As immigrants and their supporters celebrate this historic achievement, we’re hoping other jurisdictions will join Rockville in passing similar legislation, which simultaneously protects public safety and civil rights. To that end, we offer this after action report as a guide.
LAYING THE GROUNDWORK
Our campaign was born November 8, when Donald J. Trump was declared winner of the 2016 presidential election. To our horror, some of his supporters celebrated by committing hate crimes against our most vulnerable neighbors. In its report Ten Days After: Harassment and Intimidation in the Aftermath of the Election, the Southern Poverty Law Center documented 867 hate incidents, the greatest number of which–280–targeted immigrants. Progressive regions like Montgomery County were not immune from this paroxysm of violence: less than a week after the election, a Silver Spring church was vandalized with pro-Trump messages.
On December 11, 2016, City Councilmember Julie Palakovich Carr and two other members of the immigration working group for Progressive Women Working Together (PWWT), a Rockville-based women’s group formed after the election to resist the Trump agenda, held their first meeting. At that meeting, Palakovich Carr expressed concern that the RPD’s unwritten policy of limiting cooperation with federal immigrant enforcement actions was no longer robust enough to withstand increased pressure from Washington on our police to take enforcement actions at odds with our city’s values. She agreed to talk to RPD officers and the city’s attorney and research options to shore up the policy, which has served the community well for decades. With one out of three residents born abroad, Palakovich Carr believed Rockville would support the effort to protect immigrants and preserve community policing. By the next immigration working group meeting on January 29, Palakovich Carr presented a draft ordinance she had developed after discussions with police and lawyers and research into similar legislation from other jurisdictions. To gauge support from the community, working group members launched a Change.org petitionand a Facebook page. Their belief in Rockville’s values of diversity and inclusion was well-founded; an overwhelming majority of city residents expressed support, with most opponents residing outside city limits.
Pro tips: Know your community: your chances of successfully passing legislation are greatest if you live in a diverse, progressive community, where residents experience on a daily basis the benefits of immigrant neighbors. In addition or instead of the online petition, activists could borrow a tactic from Sanctuary DMV and send out volunteers to canvass neighborhoods in the community, collecting signatures on hard-copy petitions in support of legislation while notifying them about other opportunities to support the immigrant community, including know-your-rights workshops, ICE check-in accompaniment, and rapid response teams to document ICE raids and provide support to family members left behind. Find a champion for the ordinance among your elected representatives; in this climate of xenophobia, that could be a challenge; Palakovich Carr and other City Councilmembers received hate mail from across the country, including threats of physical violence. Leaders with that kind of courage may be hard to find nowadays, but they exist. And if they don’t, consider running for office yourself.
BROADENING THE BASE OF SUPPORT
The ordinance wouldn’t have gotten far without the support of affinity groups, first and foremost MCCRC. At its general meeting on February 7, the organization invited me, as a member of PWWT’s immigration working group, to speak about the ordinance and afterwards help lead a break-out group to discuss how to help Rockville pass it, as well as similar legislation at the state and county level. MCCRC was critical in organizing events in support of the ordinance and publicizing them afterwards, offering advice on management of social media, and simply showing up to testify at numerous City Council meetings.
Pro tips: Solicit the support of affinity groups and tap the expertise of more experienced activists. If we had to do it again, we would have made an even greater effort to engage immigrant groups like CASA or United We Dream, whose members have the greatest stake in this kind of legislation and offer the most compelling testimony in support of it.
MEETING (AND RESPONDING TO) THE OPPOSITION
Palakovich Carr introduced the ordinance at the City Council meeting on February 27, and about 75 people showed up at the next meeting on March 6 to voice their opinion, stretching the normally brief public input portion to about four hours. We expected some opposition–we got a preview when opponents launched their own Change.org petition—but we also expected a majority of city residents to support the ordinance, which they did. The opposition, however, was vocal and well organized and required a strong, strategic response.
One step we took was to painstakingly review video from the March 6 hearing to compile common misconceptions propagated by opponents of the ordinance and conduct research to rebut them. We published these myths and facts in a blog post, Mythbusting Rockville’s Sanctuary Ordinance, printed them as talking points on the backs of posters and in media handouts, and shared them with members of the City Council.
Dealing with Anti-immigrant Groups and Controversy-loving News Media
In an earlier post, we discussed our response to organized anti-immigrant opposition and our observation that some news media were more interested in generating heat than light in covering the ordinance. We will provide an update on these topics in a future post.
Organizing Immigrants to Support Other Immigrants
One of our challenges was how to respond to the large contingent of Asian Americans who testified, as immigrants, against the ordinance. Members of Asian/Pacific Islander affinity groups, including API Resistance and Asian Americans Advancing Justice, rose to the challenge, forming a coalition that developed strategies to counter the “good immigrant/bad immigrant” narrative and make common cause with all immigrants. We shared their inspiring statement in an earlier post and will provide more details on this effort in a future post.
Pro tips: Conduct opposition research. Listen to your opponents’ arguments and respond to them with all the tools at your disposal, from credible scientific data to moving personal stories. Research press and public records on efforts by other jurisdictions to pass similar legislation to help identify groups and individuals who might show up at hearing to oppose your proposed ordinance.
NEVERTHELESS, WE PERSISTED
When the ordinance was introduced to the City Council in January, no one predicted it would take almost four months to come to a vote. During that time, supporters strove to maintain the momentum, writing letters to the Mayor and Council, testifying at Community Forums (some of us multiple times!) or observing them in person or online for additional opposition testimony, attending Mayor and Council drop-ins, writing public blog posts and sending internal emails, and organizing and attending counter demonstrations. All this, while juggling jobs, school, family and activism on other issues. If you decide to try to undertake a similar effort in your city (and we hope you will), brace yourself and pace yourself. It’s tiring work, but if the end result is a law that protects your community’s values, it’s worth it. As Palakovich Carr said in her statement before the vote, “More than a thousand Rockville residents weighed in, when you factor all the emails, people who have come and spoken in person, and the two dueling petitions in favor and in opposition to the ordinance. And Rockville residents made their voices loud and clear: They overwhelmingly support this ordinance by a margin of more than two to one.”
This is the first of 3 posts reviewing the Rockville “Fostering Community Trust” campaign:
- Victory for Rockville’s Fostering Community Trust Ordinance: Lessons Learned(Carol Schlenker)
- [coming soon] Victory for Rockville’s Fostering Community Trust Ordinance: Hate Groups (John Appiah Duffell)
- [coming soon] Victory for Rockville’s Fostering Community Trust Ordinance: API Resistance (Jim Huang)
See also our collection of testimony offered in favor of the ordinance.
 Although at the outset we referred to the proposed legislation as a “sanctuary” ordinance, we have since eschewed that term, for two reasons: (1) “sanctuary” has no agreed legal definition, and (2) opponents of such ordinances have turned this beautiful word, derived from the Latin “sanctus” meaning “holy,” into a pejorative.
This article is reprinted from the Montgomery County Civil Rights Coalition website.