BY ALLAN WALTERS — Overflow crowds attended a March 1 Hyattsville City Council public hearing to voice their opinions about a proposed ordinance to establish Hyattsville as a “sanctuary city.” Each speaker had two minutes to address the council and outline their support or opposition for the ordinance. Of the 41 Hyattsville residents that spoke, 35 were in favor of the proposed ordinance, four were opposed and two were unsure.
The speakers represented Hyattsville’s diverse population and included lifelong city residents, recent immigrants from Latin America, a Vietnam War veteran in his seventies, elementary school students, a Jewish resident whose parents were Polish and Russian immigrants, a Baptist preacher and a Muslim lawyer.
Prior to the public hearing, a rally promoting sanctuary city status for Hyattsville kicked off at Robert J. King Memorial Park on Gallatin Street. The rally, organized by the local chapter of Not On Our Watch, attracted approximately 60 supporters. Participants listened to speakers — including Councilmember Patrick Paschall (Ward 3), who sponsored the ordinance — and filled out comment cards describing their support for the ordinance; these cards were delivered to the city council at the hearing. The group walked to the hearing, many carrying signs in support of the ordinance and chanting “¡Si, se puede [Yes, we can]!” They were the largest group at the hearing and asserted their presence with loud clapping whenever a speaker voiced agreement with their views.
The city provided portable translation devices so all attendees could participate in real time. A second room was set up for the overflow crowd.
While there were wide-ranging viewpoints supporting arguments both for and against the proposed ordinance, many speakers voiced several consistent themes.
Those opposing the proposed ordinance focused on the potential loss of federal funding and the belief that Hyattsville should comply with federal immigration laws.
Lou Kerdock, a Hyattsville resident since 1976, said, “The United States was built on a foundation of law, principles and order, and to go against the immigration laws of the United States is beyond my belief.”
Many supporting the proposed ordinance argued that passing it would make the city safer, would send a welcoming message, and would place the city on the “right side of history.” T. Carter Ross, a 19-year Hyattsville resident, said, “I view this as a public safety issue. If someone feels unsafe seeking aid and support from city employees and reporting crimes to local police, it makes all of us less safe.”
Candida Garcia, a 12-year Hyattsville resident and president of Rosa L. Parks Elementary School PTA, spoke passionately in Spanish, saying, “This is the first time that I do not feel safe in my community. … I ask you take a moment at this time and imagine that each day you have to say goodbye to your family as if it may be the last time. I want you to imagine that every day you have to live with the fear of being deported.”
Hyattsville resident Bryan Harp offered a counterpoint to the opposition, stating, “I want to flip the coin on some the comments made earlier. Our country was not founded on law and order. It was founded on an objection to unjust law and order.”
Two elementary-age siblings offered a moment of levity as they climbed up on a stool at the microphone. Heath Alexander said, “The proposed ordinance will make people feel more welcome in the community and will encourage parents to participate in school activities.” Emilie Alexander then offered, “I believe strongly in the sanctuary city status because I have a lot of diverse friends and they are not at all like what our president claims them to be. They are nice, respectful law-abiding citizens.”
Angela Kenny, one of two speakers who declined to support or oppose the proposed ordinance, emphasized that people want their voices heard: “Why not let the people vote?”
Stephen Price, a pastor at First Baptist Church, was the last to speak. He said he was initially on the fence, but now supports the ordinance. “We need to draw a line in the sand. … I hope that this community will draw that line clear and firm and deep.”
At the end of the public comment session, city councilmembers had an opportunity to speak. Each of them thanked the public for attending the hearing and sharing their opinions. Councilmember Thomas Wright (Ward 3) remarked that he was “quite impressed with this turnout” and spoke of the meeting as “proof that we are a community,” adding that he was “proud to be a councilmember representing a city like this.”
Paschall sought to calm fears about losing federal funding by saying that it’s unclear if federal funding will be at stake, and that in the last five years, Hyattsville received an “average of $22,000 a year in federal grants on a $16 million budget — well under 1 percent [of the total budget].”
The proposed sanctuary city ordinance is currently being reviewed by city staff and the city’s attorney. The city council will discuss the ordinance at its meeting on March 20. The public is encouraged to continue providing input about the ordinance.