ROCKVILLE, Md. (AP) - The crimes were neither violent nor unique, but the Montgomery County investigators who looked into reports of car vandalism were troubled nonetheless by what they found.
One Hispanic man reported in July 2010 that his tires had been slashed 20 times over four years. A similar complaint came the following month from a man who said he caught the vandal in action and reported him as saying, "I hate you Spanish people. I hate you all."
But when police fanned out across the heavily Hispanic neighborhood, they found about 20 neighbors also complained of damage to their cars - yet the crimes had gone unreported.
The suspected vandal from Silver Spring was convicted and is awaiting sentencing. But to police and prosecutors, the incident illustrates a persistent reluctance among many in the county's soaring Hispanic population to report crimes for fear of being questioned about their immigration status.
"This was an immediate representation of some of the hurdles that we need to overcome as a police department. We use this as a poster child for our message," said police Capt. John Damskey.
Authorities have been holding community meetings, encouraging Hispanics to participate in the judicial process and spreading the message that crime victims and witnesses won't be asked by prosecutors if they're in the U.S. legally. County leaders have also repeatedly voiced public reservations about Secure Communities, a federal program that seeks to identify illegal immigrants by matching fingerprints collected in state and local jails against an immigration database.
The message is nothing new, but it's become more urgent in the past decade as the county's Hispanic presence has grown to 17 percent of the overall population of nearly 972,000. Minorities make up more than half the county's population as immigrants continue settling in this affluent county just outside Washington.
"I do not think you can selectively protect people who live in your community based on what kind of piece of paper they're carrying in their pocket," Montgomery County State's Attorney John McCarthy said in an interview with The Associated Press. "I do not think that you can allow people to be selectively targeted or discriminated against because of real or perceived affiliation with a particular ethnic group."
Hispanic immigrants are seen as easy targets for criminals. Day laborers, for instance, routinely carry wads of cash after payday. There's also a pervasive sense among criminals that Hispanics won't report crimes for fear of being scrutinized over their immigration status, just as a drug dealer may not report a theft to avoid questions about why he was carrying so much cash.
"We know that many folks come from countries and cultures where representatives in law enforcement may not have the best reputation, so we know that by them coming here, we're already being looked at with a suspicious eye," said police spokesman Capt. Paul Starks.
Those concerns complicated an investigation into a series of assaults and robberies targeting Hispanic men in Gaithersburg about five years ago. Victims were afraid that as noncitizens they would get deported, and after one case was dismissed because a victim failed to show in court, prosecutor Stephen Chaikin said he went to the victims' homes with an interpreter to take their statements. The case was reinstated and one of the defendants ended up deported.
On other occasions, prosecutors say they've been pleasantly surprised by immigrant participation in the court system. Dozens of Hispanics who were duped in a bogus immigration paperwork scam packed a courtroom for the sentencing of a man who posed as a federal immigration agent and carried out the fraud.
"This was the hard part. Were they going to come to court? Did they trust the Montgomery County State's Attorney's office - and they did," said Chaikin, who also handled that case.
Still, the county is wary of being painted as a safe haven for illegal immigrants. Officials say they're in constant contact with federal immigration authorities, police check for outstanding warrants of people they stop and forward the information to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement when appropriate, and the county jail has historically shared with ICE the names of its foreign-born inmates. And illegal immigrants who commit violent crimes are subject to deportation just as they would be anywhere else.
In 2009, County Executive Isiah Leggett announced that the names of people arrested for violent crimes and gun offenses would be forwarded to ICE. The policy was formalized several months after the murder of an 83-year-old Bethesda woman by two immigrant cousins who had hired to do yard work for her, though Leggett spokesman Patrick Lacefield said the policy was not inspired by any one case. One defendant was sentenced to two consecutive life sentences plus 30 years, and the other also got a life sentence after pleading guilty.
The county's stance sets it apart from neighboring jurisdictions that have been quicker to embrace Secure Communities and have taken a hard-line stance on illegal immigration. But Kim Propeack, political director for Casa de Maryland, the state's largest Latino and immigrant organization, said the differences from county to county are often lost on immigrants unfamiliar with the specifics of the law.
"For your normal person on the street, it's all one big system," Propeack said.
Some ardent opponents of illegal immigration decry what they see as McCarthy's lenient stance.
"Anyone who's in the country illegally should be deported," said Brad Botwin, head of Help Save Maryland, a grassroots organization.
But McCarthy makes no apologies - and says his office will continue to distinguish between illegal immigrants who commit violent crimes and those who are themselves victimized by crime.
"If you commit a crime - a violent crime - we're going to do everything we can to prosecute you to the fullest extent of the law, and if that means deporting you at the end, we're going to do that," McCarthy said. "But if you're a victim or a witness to a crime, you can come in here, I don't care about your immigration status. I don't ask you about your immigration status."