“You Never Really Felt Safe”: Resistance to Far-Right Maryland Sheriff Builds in Election Lead-Up

Sheriff Chuck Jenkins has long crusaded against immigrants in rapidly diversifying Frederick County, and faces pushback as he seeks a fifth term in November.

Manuel Madrid,    |    September 19, 2022

Immigrants’ rights activists protest the 287(g) program in Frederick County (Photo courtesy of the RISE CoalitionMD).

This article is part of a series on how the midterms may reshape immigration policy. Read our first installment on Wake County, North Carolina

Jesus Santiago remembers when La Chiquita Grocery was the only place nearby he and his family could go for the hard-to-find ingredients that are staples of cuisine from their native Mexico. When he first moved to Frederick County, Maryland, as a child in 2002, it was an overwhelmingly white county known for its strong conservative leanings. Speaking Spanish in public often brought stares and there weren’t many kids who looked like him in school. 

Over time, things changed. The Latinx population in Frederick County grew nearly seven-fold from 2000 to 2020, driven largely by job opportunities in the area and low housing costs, and more and more stores like La Chiquita popped up around town; the share of the white population, which sat at 90 percent in 2000, is now below 70 percent. But there was always one constant: “As an immigrant,” Santiago says, “you never really felt safe.”

The rapid demographic changes were met with hostility by local officials. The county declared English to be its official language in 2012 to deter immigrants from coming. Members of the county’s board of commissioners pushed to block landlords from renting to undocumented people and require businesses to verify the immigration status of their workers. Commissioners even attempted to get local public schools to report on which students were undocumented. 

These efforts were all designed to make daily life difficult for immigrant communities. But the local sheriff’s department, which has been led since 2006 by Republican Sheriff Chuck Jenkins, went furthest in declaring war on people like Santiago. 

In December 2010, while driving home from work, Santiago noticed a police car following him. It kept behind several minutes before pulling him over for purportedly crossing a solid road line. Santiago had heard stories of immigrants like him in the community getting stopped for petty reasons before being detained. Now, it was his turn.

Santiago was arrested for driving on a suspended license and taken to the station, where officers ran his fingerprints. Upon discovering his undocumented status, Frederick County police immediately contacted federal agents from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and put Santiago in a cell block reserved for immigrants facing deportation. Santiago spent Christmas and New Years behind bars. Forty-two days went by before he managed to convince an immigration judge to lower his bail to an amount his family could afford to pay; on the 43rd day, he posted bail and was released to his family while his case was processed.

Sanitago’s story is no outlier. Under Jenkins, Frederick County became home to one of the most draconian anti-immigrant local law enforcement regimes in the country. Working hand-in-hand with ICE, Jenkins’ police force deported more than 1,500 immigrants and detained countless more. The sheriff has ridden his anti-immigrant platform to the summit of small-town stardom, becoming a darling of Fox News and making an appearance at political gatherings held at the White House by former President Donald Trump and later at his Mar-a-Lago beach home. But that joyride might soon come to an end. 

Jenkins is up for reelection in November, and immigrants’ rights advocates hope this is the moment their longstanding efforts to reverse local policies finally pay off. 

Jenkins faces Democrat Karl Bickel, a former sheriff’s deputy and a retired policing analyst at the Department of Justice, who says he would curtail the sheriff’s department’s relationship with ICE if he wins.

“It’s just not the place of local law enforcement to get involved in immigration enforcement,” Bickel, who has met with Santiago and other affected immigrants during his campaigns, told Bolts. “It’s time to start the hard work of rebuilding trust with the immigrant community.”

The central pillar of Jenkins’ immigration policies is a special agreement made with ICE known as 287(g). Under 287(g), sheriff’s deputies are empowered to act like federal immigration agents within their county jail; when someone is booked in jail for whatever reason, it allows deputies to inquire about their immigration status and to keep those who can’t prove their immigration status locked up when they’d otherwise be freed until ICE collects them. It’s why Frederick County police were able to keep Santiago detained for so long for a misdemeanor offense. 

Supporters of 287(g) like Jenkins claim the program is a necessary public safety tool for tackling serious crime. The available data for 287(g) arrests, both nationally and for Frederick County, contradict Jenkins’ assurances and show that it is frequently used against people arrested over minor infractions. Immigrants rights advocates criticize the program on the grounds that local law enforcement weaponizes it against immigrants and other people of color, targeting people after booking them over offenses like traffic violations. 

“It leads to a real destruction of community trust towards law enforcement,” says Viviana Westbrook of the Catholic Immigration Network. Westbrook says she’s represented clients in Frederick County who have been mugged or assaulted but refused to call the police. 

“Undocumented people are afraid that reporting a crime will cause them more danger than the actual crime they’ve been a victim to,” Westbrook adds.

Bickel, Jenkins’s challenger, echoes that criticism of the program. In an interview with Bolts, he committed to ending the county’s 287(g) contract.

Bickel also said he would curb other forms of cooperation with ICE and would reject detainers—requests from ICE, which do not include a criminal warrant signed by a judge, that a jail keep detaining someone past their release date. But Bickel left the door open to sharing information with the federal agency in cases involving detained individuals who committed higher-level crimes such as homicide or assault of any kind. In such cases, the sheriff’s department would still not detain the individual on behalf of ICE, Bickel said, but would contact the agency to inform them that the individual has been released.  

Only a small share of counties nationwide are part of the 287(g) program, including Frederick and two of Maryland’s 22 other counties. 

And Frederick is one of just a handful of 287(g) counties nationwide that voted for Joe Biden over Trump in 2020 and have local elections this year. This marks Frederick among the 2022 midterms’ critical battlegrounds for local immigration policy, alongside counties dispersed around the country such as Barnstable in Massachusetts, and Wake in North Carolina

Still, the number of jurisdictions nationwide participating in 287(g) more than tripled between 2016 and 2020, thanks to a concerted effort by the Trump administration to promote the program. The common factor among new participants, law professor Alina Das writes in her book No Justice in the Shadows, was not a high crime rate, but rather a change in demographics. According to Das, nearly 90 percent of jurisdictions signing up had seen growth in their Latinx population above the national average in recent years. These were the same dynamics at play in Frederick County when Jenkins came into power. 

Jenkins was first elected in 2006 on the back of a campaign demonizing immigrants. According to a legal brief by the ACLU of Maryland, Jenkins claimed that “the immigration problem” was the nation’s “single biggest threat”—one that he intended to solve and “shoot them right back” out of Frederick County. It didn’t take long for local advocates to question whether the sheriff’s devotion to the 287(g) program was grounded in crime prevention or just thinly veiled racism. 

Former president of the Frederick County NAACP chapter Guy Djoken thinks back with dismay on his first time meeting Jenkins. He and representatives from immigrant advocacy group CASAand from the state’s ACLU chapter gathered in Jenkin’s office in 2008 to make the case that 287(g) was not an effective tool for fighting crime. As they finished their presentation, Jenkins asked if he could show them something before leaving. The sheriff turned to his computer screen which lit up with a video from immigration restrictionist group NumbersUSA. In the video, a presenter stands before an enormous container of colorful gumballs meant to represent the billions of poor people living in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, arguing that immigration levels to the U.S. should be cut. 

“We couldn’t believe our eyes. This wasn’t about stopping crime at all. It was about getting immigrants out of America,” Djoken, who led the Frederick County chapter of the civil rights organization from 2004 to 2016, told Bolts. “We realized then that there was no hope for education or cooperation. We needed to fight back.”

Jenkins did not respond to an interview request or questions before the publication of this article. He responded after this article was published. On a call with Bolts, Jenkins said he stood by 287(g) and his past comments on the program. He said he did not believe the program had negatively affected any trust between his department and Frederick County’s immigrant community. Regarding the NumbersUSA video, Jenkins said he played the video that day to “show where we were headed as a country,” mentioning millions of “illegals” and unsustainable immigration levels.

Throughout his tenure, Jenkins has associated with other organizations that advocate for harsher immigration policies, such as the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR). FAIR, which shares a founder with NumbersUSA, the white supremacist and eugenicist John Tanton, funded a trip to the southern border with Mexico for Jenkins and seven other sheriffs in 2014. FAIR also works with another far-right group, Help Save Maryland, which partnered with Jenkins to set up a statewide tour to promote 287(g). Both FAIR and Help Save Maryland have both been labeled as ‘hate groups’ by the Southern Poverty Law Center. 

Jenkins is also involved with far-right groups Protect America Now and Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association. Both groups, which boast hundreds of members between them, have actively promoted conspiracies around the 2020 election and sit at the center of a network of organizations working to police future elections. Their strategy is to use baseless claims of voter fraud to empower sheriffs to monitor ballot drop boxes and poll locations—tactics that democracy advocates warn will be used to intimidate voters, particularly voters of color. 

Sheriff Chuck Jenkins of Fredericks County (Frederick County sheriff’s office/Facebook)

In the years following Djoken’s 2008 meeting with Jenkins, local progressive, civil rights, and immigrant advocacy groups coalesced against the county’s 287(g) program and the sheriff’s extremism. But as pressing as these issues were, Frederick County leaned conservative and remained roughly 80 percent white, and convincing residents to care would take time.  

Jenkins would cruise to reelection in his next two campaigns, including beating Bickel in 2014 by 25 points. Bickel sought a rematch in 2018, and cut the margin to just four points. He is now running for the third time.

Among the major difference makers in that tight, 2018 election were the organizers with groups like Safe Haven Frederick, ACLU of Maryland, and the RISE Coalition of Western Maryland who worked to capitalize on the anger at Trump’s immigration policies to remind voters that their sheriff was working closely with ICE. (Similar activism elsewhere that year succeeded at ousting other longtime sheriffs with ties to ICE.) Organizers staged several protests against the county’s participation in the 287(g) program, in addition to pro-immigrant rallies and events. Their efforts centered the voices of affected local residents like Roxana Orellana Santos and Sara Medrano, two Latina women who have successfully sued Jenkins’s office for racial profiling after they were wrongfully arrested while going about their day. 

The county has shifted bluer since. Biden’s 10-point win over Trump marked the first time a Democratic presidential candidate carried Frederick County since 1964. In 2021, Democrats used their new majority on the county council to create the first Immigrant Affairs Commission, a body meant to facilitate communication between immigrants and elected officials. 

“When people face a common challenge, it brings them together,” says Djoken, who attributes many of the recent transformations in Frederick County to the coalitions built in response to its 287(g) agreement. 

Meanwhile, on a statewide level, Maryland Democrats who run the state legislature have moved against local anti-immigrant ordinances. In December, the legislature overrode vetoes from Republican Governor Larry Hogan to adopt a law banning local jails from being paid by federal agencies to detain undocumented people and a law banning state officials from sharing driver’s records and facial recognition data with federal immigration agents. 

Jenkins’s critics believe that conditions are in place for the sheriff to lose in a still-diversifying Frederick County, from the local backlash to Trump to this statewide move to be more welcoming to immigrants. And they intend to keep reminding people of his policies.

Santiago, who was brought by his parents to the U.S. when he was seven years old, was eventually protected from deportation in 2012 when then-President Barack Obama created the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. But the threat 287(g) poses to other immigrants like him, including his own family, is on his mind.

“It scares me because my dad drives everyday and he’s undocumented,” he said. “There are times when he and my mom leave the house and I won’t hear from them for a few hours. I get worried. Did something bad happen? Did they get stopped?”

If Frederick County were to quit 287(g), Santiago added, “I’d be able to sleep better at night knowing my mom and dad won’t get pulled over by somebody racist and get detained.”

The article has been updated with comment from Jenkins.