US & Canada

Maryland high school rape case sparks immigration row

Rockville High School (file photo) Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Rockville High School (file photo)

An alleged rape at a US high school has sparked a row over immigration that has reached all the way to the White House.

Two Central American-born students are in custody after a 14-year-old girl was attacked last week at Rockville High School in Maryland, police say.

The White House said "tragedies like this" had motivated President Trump's illegal immigration "crackdown".

On Tuesday night, protesters gathered outside the school, some expressing concern about undocumented immigrants.

Henry Sanchez, 18, and Jose Montano, 17, were charged in the alleged assault, which the victim said took place in a boy's toilet at the beginning of the school day last Thursday.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Henry Sanchez had entered the country illegally, records show

Authorities say the older boy is in the country illegally, but they refused to disclose the other suspect's immigration status because he is a juvenile.

On Tuesday, White House spokesman Sean Spicer condemned the crime, calling it "shocking, disturbing, horrific and whatever other words that someone can think of".

But at a press conference, school officials played down the immigration angle.

"We would like to change the conversation," said Jack Smith, superintendent of the 159,000-student Montgomery County Public Schools system.

"Some have tried to make this into a question and issue of immigration... but we serve every student who walks through our doors," he added.

He said the two suspects had been enrolled in a special programme for non-English speakers.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption White House press secretary Sean Spicer called the crime "shocking, disturbing, horrific"

On Tuesday night, demonstrators outside the school chanted "safety not sanctuary", a reference to sanctuary cities, where local authorities often protect those without legal US residency from deportation.

Montgomery County Police Capt James Humphries said he believed the victim of the alleged rape was a US citizen.

A spokesman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement confirmed that border agents had encountered Henry Sanchez near the US-Mexico border in Texas last August.

He was freed and ordered to appear before an immigration judge, but no court date was set.

According to the Washington Post, Henry Sanchez spent 17 years of his life in his native Guatemala.

Jose Montano lived in El Salvador for 16 years, according to court documents.

Earlier his week, Maryland lawmakers in the Democratic-controlled legislature passed a bill designed to prevent police from stopping people to ask about their immigration status.

Republican Governor Larry Hogan said the legislation would make it more difficult for the state to co-operate with immigration investigations.

He has vowed to veto the bill.

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