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Rocked by Rape Case, Maryland City Debates Sanctuary


Plastic cups spell out "Rockville Strong," at Rockville High School in Rockville, Maryland, March 23, 2017.

Residents of Rockville, Maryland, pride themselves on living in a diverse community, the mid-sized city’s most celebrated strength, they say. So proposing sanctuary status seemed like a realistic move, until a rape case brought the endeavor into question.

City councilwoman Julie Palakovich Carr introduced the sanctuary ordinance in early March. It would add Rockville to the list of about 600 sanctuary cities and counties, jurisdictions that choose not to inform immigration officials when undocumented immigrants, charged with or convicted of minor crimes, are released from local custody, according to the National Immigration Law Center.

The city held a hearing on the sanctuary jurisdiction topic at which at least 80 people testified, some in favor, others against.

But two weeks after the measure’s introduction, two undocumented Rockville High School students were charged with the rape of a 14-year-old girl.

The unidentified girl told law enforcement that Henry E. Sanchez, 17, from Guatemala, and Jose O. Montano, 18, from El Salvador, pushed her inside the boys’ bathroom and took turns raping her. The two were registered as freshman at Rockville High School.

Both Montano and Sanchez, who was charged as an adult, are being held without bond while their case is pending.

Maryland’s governor expressed his outrage.

“The public has a right to know how something this tragic and unacceptable was allowed to transpire in a public school," Governor Larry Hogan wrote in a statement.

As the case became national news, Rockville's proposed sanctuary ordinance was called into question.

View of town center in Rockville, Maryland, March 23, 2017. (VOA / A. Barros)
View of town center in Rockville, Maryland, March 23, 2017. (VOA / A. Barros)

“There is no reason why places shouldn't enforce federal immigration laws. You see what happens when they don’t,” said Brendan Cassell, a student at a local high school and executive director of the Montgomery County Federation of Teenage Republicans (MCTARS).

“Rockville city is an example of that. We had two illegal immigrants who should have been deported,” he told VOA.

Competing petitions

A suburb of Washington, D.C. and county seat of Montgomery County, one of the most affluent counties in the country, Rockville is home to numerous high tech and biotechnology companies. With several upscale regional shopping centers, it also is a major retail hub.

Since the rape case, it has been a center of controversy. The school system has been inundated with phone calls and emails. Parents have picketed Rockville High.

Rockville resident Brigitta Mullican drew up a petition, saying the city does not need to “break the law to be inclusive” and calling for an end to the sanctuary city effort.

“Rockville should not give undocumented immigrants a false sense of security,” the petition says. “Adopting a so-called sanctuary city policy will do nothing to prevent immigration agents from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Department of Homeland Security, from taking action against undocumented immigrants in Rockville.” More than 600 people have signed the petition.

In response, Ben Shnider, launched a competing petition on

It urges city officials to “keep our immigrant neighbors from being singled out by law-enforcement officials because of their immigration status” and says, “Rockville must write these protections into law.”

The petition has 1,189 signatories.

Still facing a vote on the sanctuary ordinance, Rockville’s mayor and city council members were not available for comment, but a statement from the city’s communication department says the Rockville City Police Department currently follows all federal mandates and notifies U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) of arrests, as required.

In doing so, the city is following Montgomery County guidelines. Montgomery County is not a sanctuary jurisdiction.

The Montgomery County Council Office building in Rockville, Maryland, March 23, 2017. (VOA / A. Barros)
The Montgomery County Council Office building in Rockville, Maryland, March 23, 2017. (VOA / A. Barros)

Montgomery County Council member Craig Rice said he has been hearing from his constituents that since the rape case residents are focused on coming together as a community.

“We continue to lift up people who may need support and may need help. We're going to do that for them and continue to do that regardless of your immigration status,” Rice said. “[It] really is about being a good fellow human being and that's what we believe here in Montgomery County.”