HYATTSVILLE – With the final vote tallied, the chants inside the Hyattsville City Council chambers changed from “Yes we can!” to “Yes we did.”
The city of Hyattsville will now become a sanctuary city after the city council voted 8-2 in favor of the ordinance. The new ordinance will become law on May 7, 20 days after its approval on Monday night.
“For me, this is one of the greatest achievements in the state of Maryland, because the city of Hyattsville is a community with many immigrants and many Latino people,” said Antonia Sulko, a resident and activist. “For more than 10 years we have waited for an immigration reform to happen, but this is showing us that yes, we can do it. We’re not going to stop until immigration reform happens and more than 11 million people are allowed to stay in this country.”
The ordinance was formally introduced earlier this year, but had been talked about on the council dais since the election of President Donald Trump, who has used strong rhetoric against both Latinos and illegal immigrants. Councilman Patrick Paschall, who submitted the bill, has long spoken against the president’s statements on immigrants, but it was Councilwoman Shani Warner who used the April 17 city council meeting to push back against the stigmas around immigrants.
“I’ve listened to arguments based on false and racially tinged generalizations. I’ve sat while people have politicized tragedies. I’ve seen and heard threats to the city of Hyattsville and to council members individually. I’ve listened to people use harmful, inaccurate and dehumanizing words like ‘illegals’ to show their contempt for their neighbors,” she said. “I have not heard anything that makes me believe the opposition comes from individuals who have actually read the legislation before us.”
The approved ordinance largely solidifies a policy that the city police and city staff have unofficially taken up and adhered to for the past several years. In essence, the bill states the city, its police and its resources will not be used to interfere in immigration matters.
Over the past several months, the council has fielded hundreds of questions and comments from the community during both public comment and public hearings and online through the city’s Speak Up website and the community listserv.
The sanctuary city bill has sparked great debate in the city and beyond as advocates on both sides brought their views to the table. Throughout public comment, mothers have testified on the safety of their children, neighbors have come to advocate for their friends, residents have raised concerns about safety and the law and some opponents even threatened the city council.
Even at the meeting where the final vote was to take place, residents of the city came out to voice their opposition.
“It’s going to be suicide for Hyattsville,” Louis Kerdock said. “I’m deeply concerned with the logic of a sanctuary city anyway in our country. Sanctuary cities harbor criminals, creating a dangerous environment for our U.S. citizens.”
Despite opposition, and two votes against the bill from Councilwomen Ruth Ann Frazier and Paula Perry, the bill passed to cheers from the packed council chambers.
Shouts of “sí, se puede!” filled the chambers and the gathered crowd had to be ushered out of the chambers so the council could continue its meeting.
“I’m very emotional. Now that the country is in conflict with other countries, now more than ever, we need to be united,” Sulko said. “This makes me feel safer, now that the city has (done this).”
Deni Taveras, the county councilwoman for District 2, was also present at the meeting and said she was excited for Hyattsville residents on the historic night.
“This is just an amazing opportunity for a lot of families to stop living in fear. I’m excited that this is just the first of many to come down the road,” she said.
Taveras, along with Mayor Candace Hollingsworth and Councilman Joseph Solomon, visited Rosa Parks Elementary School last week to talk to families about immigration issues.
Solomon said the visit was profoundly impactful, especially because he saw first hand the fear students felt about their parents possibly being deported.
“I thought to myself, no student, no child should have to sit at home and wonder these types of questions,” Solomon said.
Taveras said she believes those students and families really spoke to the heart of the council.
“I heard the worry of the children, the worry of the teachers. There is a heightened awareness of the fear of families being ripped apart,” she said. “I’m just elated that this council had the heart to keep an open mind.”
Hyattsville will become the first official sanctuary city in Prince George’s County. The statewide bill to designate Maryland as a sanctuary state passed the Maryland House, but died in a Senate committee.
As for Prince George’s County, Taveras said it is unlikely the county council would vote to officially designate PG as a sanctuary county as it continues its bid for the new FBI headquarters. Prince George’s County has two sites in the final three that could possibly be chosen, but with the new presidential administration, the council will likely not take any chances.
“With fear of the whole issue of the FBI coming here, I think it’s a non-starter,” Taveras said. “But we could propose it. That’s the idea – to see where we land.”
Correction: This story was corrected since publication to indicate that the vote on the bill was in fact 8-2 and not 9-2. Councilman Kevin Ward was not at the meeting and did not vote.
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