BETHESDA, Md. â€” Outside a Maryland high school dragged into the national immigration debate by an alleged rape, a makeshift sign reflects that strain: “Rockville Strong.”
Rockville High School students and parents declined to comment Thursday about the case involving a 14-year-old girl and a suspect authorities say came to the U.S. illegally from Central America.
One mother would only point to the sign made of red plastic cups in a ballpark fence.
Protesters on both sides of the debate converged on a nearby elementary school earlier Thursday during a visit by U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. And the White House has weighed in, saying President Donald Trump has made a crackdown on illegal immigration a priority “because of tragedies like this.”
The Montgomery County school system has been besieged by hundreds of racist and xenophobic calls. In response, schools beefed up police presence in an attempt to reassure the anxious community.
“Now we’re starting to receive calls that are threatening, saying they’re going to shoot up the illegals in our school,” said Derek Turner, a school system spokesman. He noted that the calls marked “a whole new level of vitriol that we haven’t seen before.”
The latest flashpoint in the immigration debate started out as a sexual assault case. Last Friday, 18-year-old Henry Sanchez and 17-year-old Jose Montano were charged with first-degree rape and two counts of first-degree sexual offence.
Police said the girl was walking in a hallway when one of them asked her to have sex and she refused. Montano forced her into a boy’s bathroom stall and they raped her, police said.
Sanchez, who is from Guatemala, came to the U.S. illegally in August and was encountered by a U.S. Border Patrol agent in Texas, federal immigration officials said. He was eventually released to live with his father.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials wouldn’t comment on Montano, who is a minor but is charged criminally as an adult.
Federal law requires public schools to admit students even if they are in the country illegally.
“As a mother of two daughters and grandmother of four young girls, my heart aches for the young woman and her family at the centre of these terrible circumstances,” DeVos said in a statement before her visit to the elementary school. “We all have a common responsibility to ensure every student has access to a safe and nurturing learning environment.”
DeVos was there with Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan for National Reading Month.
The county of Montgomery is Maryland’s largest, with a population of 1 million people. It’s considered politically progressive and voted overwhelming for Hillary Clinton during the past presidential election.
More than half its residents identify themselves as black, Hispanic or Latino, Asian or Pacific islander, or an ethnicity other than non-Hispanic white, according to the 2010 census.
Rosa Segura was one of the demonstrators at Carderock Springs Elementary School. The Takoma Park woman said she came to stand up for immigrants at a time when the Trump administration is cracking down on them.
“Whatever the case may be, they cannot stand up for themselves, so I thought it was important for me to come out here today as a person with more privilege than some of these students may have to make sure their voices are heard,” Segura said.
Trump has signed a pair of executive orders aimed at illegal immigration, and his Homeland Security Department has made clear that just about any immigrant in the country illegally is a priority for deportation. Included in one of those orders was a directive to publicly disclose, on a weekly basis, crimes attributed to immigrants and details about jails that aren’t co-operating with federal immigration authorities.
The Homeland Security Department has also announced plans to establish an office dedicated to helping victims of immigrant crimes. Critics of the president’s effort have argued that he is unjustifiably vilifying immigrants.
Other protesters at the elementary school voiced their displeasure with a bill in the Maryland Legislature that would prevent authorities from stopping or detaining people solely to ask about their immigration status. It also would block corrections officials from holding arrestees in jail at the request of Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents.
Supporters call it the Maryland Trust Act, designed to boost trust between immigrants and police. Critics say it would help protect people who have been deported after committing crimes and returned to the state.
The Republican governor promised to veto it earlier this week.
“The Maryland House of Delegates tonight passed an outrageously irresponsible bill that will make Maryland a sanctuary state and endanger our citizens,” Hogan said in a statement Monday night.
Eleni Dorian, a mother of two girls in Montgomery County schools, supports the governor’s veto and worries there are too many immigrants coming into the country. She said the bill would “open the floodgates” in a state that she believes already has lax immigration policies.
“Our schools would be overwhelmed,” Dorian said.
Associated Press writers Alicia Caldwell in Washington and Matthew Barakat in Alexandria, Virginia, contributed to this report.
Brian Witte, The Associated Press