By William J. McCarthy Jr.
Executive Director

This piece originally ran in the Catholic Review.

Last week, during a return flight from Baghdad, Pope Francis hosted an in-flight press conference where he charged us all to receive immigrants, accompany them, help them progress and integrate them.

“The integration of immigrants is key,” the pope said.

We are falling short on the integration of immigrants into our community. Each day at the Esperanza Center in Fells Point, my colleagues witness the struggles and barriers our immigrant neighbors face. The pandemic has only increased those struggles and heightened those barriers.

The Latinx community makes up just 10.6 percent of our population, but has so far comprised 16 percent of COVID-19 cases, according to Maryland Matters. The 21224 ZIP code in Baltimore City, which has a dense Latinx immigrant population, has consistently had one of the highest positivity rates in our state. In addition to the negative health consequences, COVID-19 disproportionately caused economic crisis in the immigrant community. Our new neighbors have traditionally worked in the industries hardest hit by the pandemic – healthcare, retail and food service.

Immigrant neighbors are suffering, but what makes their suffering unique is that they are doing it in silence. They are afraid to ask for help because of an inherent and understandable distrust between their communities and our civic institutions. There is a deep-seated fear that a phone call for help or a simple infraction could put the entire family at risk for ICE intervention and deportation.

Blanca De La O was a client of the Esperanza Center Immigration Legal Services. Even after an Esperanza Center attorney helped her navigate immigration court, she kept a secret. Too scared to report it to the police, Blanca hid the domestic abuse that was occurring in her home. It was not until she was hospitalized after a particularly brutal beating that she was convinced to speak with the police.

Catholic social teaching acknowledges that a country has a right to regulate its borders and to control immigration, but also instructs that the regulation must be merciful and just. If our neighbors are afraid to report a crime because they are concerned that their status will come into question, as Blanca was, there is no justice for the crime or the neighbor. If a family’s breadwinner is detained for months after a routine traffic stop, there is no mercy.

The Maryland General Assembly has an opportunity to align our state with these principles of justice and mercy. Sen. Will Smith, a Montgomery County Democrat, and Del. Wanika Fisher, a Prince George’s County Democrat, have introduced the Trust Act (SB 88/ HB 304), which would limit the participation of state and local police in immigration enforcement, protect immigrants from coercion and require the attorney general to create guidance for ICE enforcement on the premises of schools, hospitals and courthouses. Local jurisdictions including Montgomery, Baltimore and Prince George’s counties, as well as Baltimore City, have already passed trust legislation.

When we act to protect our immigrant neighbors through trust policies, we are also benefiting the common good. It risks everyone’s safety if crime victims are afraid to report crimes perpetrated against them. Research on state and localities that already have trust policies show that they increase public safety. The Center for American Progress found that counties that do not assist federal immigration enforcement officials by holding people in custody have lower crime rates, higher median household income, a lower poverty rate and lower unemployment.

It is time for Maryland to act. I ask you, my fellow faithful citizens, to join the call for our Maryland legislators to pass the Trust Act.