The cameras went up months ago in the most remote sections of the Ma & Pa Heritage Trail, a popular corridor for joggers and bicyclists along the former Maryland & Pennsylvania Railroad line in Bel Air and Forest Hill.

The surveillance system was welcomed by Harford County residents rattled by the killing of Rachel Morin, a 37-year-old mother of five whose body was found last August in a wooded area near the trail.

But with the capture last week of a suspect, the county is not only reliving the horror of her homicide, it’s become ground zero in the latest flareup over the nation’s immigration and border policy in a presidential election year. That’s because the suspect entered the United States unlawfully four times in early 2023 in Texas and New Mexico.

Former President Donald Trump, the presumed Republican nominee this year, seized on the case to excoriate Democratic President Joe Biden over alleged immigration policy deficiencies. Democrats blamed the GOP for rejecting a border security bill. Some Harford residents say they feel like political pawns.

The cameras’ necessity underscored the message that shocking crime can occur anywhere, even a county whose scenic trails, parks and gardens offer its residents bucolic retreats.

“Nationally and globally, we’re just not immune from this type of violence that has spread across the country, even to a sleepy town like Bel Air and the Ma & Pa Trail,” Barry Glassman, a Republican former two-term Harford County executive, said Thursday.

Issues at the U.S.-Mexico border, Glassman said, represent “a major failure on the part of Congress with both parties. It’s become a political football. It’s been 20 years without any solution.”

Glassman said the gravity and attention paid to the case reminds him of the 2016 killings of two sheriff’s deputies in Abingdon, the first such deaths for the agency in more than a century. But in that case, the shooter was killed in an exchange of gunfire with officers and relatives said he was mentally ill. And the deaths didn’t come in the midst of a presidential election in which immigration was already a central issue.

The Morin homicide suspect, Victor Antonio Martinez-Hernandez, is a native of El Salvador who entered the United States unlawfully last year, according to Harford County Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler. He was arrested June 14 in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and extradited Thursday to Maryland.

Authorities believe Martinez-Hernandez, 23, killed a woman in El Salvador shortly before entering the United States, Gahler told reporters. He also said DNA from the scene of Morin’s killing matched genetic material collected from a March 2023 home invasion in Los Angeles, where a mother and her 9-year-old daughter were attacked.

Martinez-Hernandez is charged with murdering and raping Morin; public defender Amy Valdivia told a Harford judge Friday: “Mr. Martinez Hernandez stands before this court presumed innocent.”

Rachel Morin memorial

A memorial for Rachel Morin is displayed on a tree on the Ma & Pa Trail in Bel Air.

A memorial for Rachel Morin is displayed on a tree on the Ma & Pa Trail in Bel Air.

At the news conference in which the Republican sheriff announced the suspect’s arrest, Gahler briefly cited the crimes in El Salvador and Los Angeles, then immediately raised the immigration issue: “To 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and to every member of both chambers of Congress: We are 1,800 miles away from the southern border here in Harford County and the American citizens are not safe because of failed immigration policy.”

Trump quickly weighed in. His campaign issued a statement saying Biden’s border policies “allowed” Martinez-Hernandez to enter the United States where the suspect “murdered a mother of five while she was on a run in Maryland.” On the day the defendant was brought back to Harford, Trump called Morin’s mother to express his condolences.

“I am deeply touched by President Trump’s kindness and concern,” Patty Morin said in a statement released by the family’s attorney. “He was genuine and truly wanted to know how our family was coping. He asked about Rachel and showed honest compassion for her untimely death. His words brought comfort to me during this very difficult time.”

Democratic Gov. Wes Moore and his Maryland allies in Congress said it was Republicans who twice rejected a bipartisan border security deal earlier this year after Trump opposed it. The legislation, shelved by the GOP on a procedural vote, was intended to reduce border crossings.

“My heart breaks for the Morin family,” Democratic Sen. Chris Van Hollen said. “The Morin family deserves more than words — they deserve action.”

In Harford, a Republican-oriented county that voted for Trump — 54.6% to 42.6% — over Biden in 2020, there has been some, although not universal, criticism of the sitting president

“If we had more control of our borders and we knew who was coming into the country, maybe someone could’ve been, ‘Hey don’t let him in the country’ and this girl would still be alive,” said Jon Quint, 55, a Bel Air Democrat who said he is leaning toward voting for Trump.

Other residents expressed unease that Harford is being used for political gamesmanship.

“There are five children who are motherless now and that’s not just a number — no matter the political landscape,” said Dan Strickland, 59, of Bel Air, who recalled riding mountain bikes on the trail and playing paintball in the nearby woods years ago. “Her name is Rachel and she was a mother and a sister.”

Having run on the Ma & Pa trail a day before Morin’s killing, Sydney Gaeth, 28, said she is more interested in answers than politics.

“I want to know exactly what happened to Rachel and why, but it seems the entire case has become a political talking point about border control,” Gaeth said. A lifelong Harford resident, Gaeth said that since the suspect was arrested, the focus on Morin has disappeared.

“I put myself in the shoes of those who are affected and I really think the focus needs to remain on them as people,” Gaeth said. “Is this about Rachel and figuring out what happened and why, or is this about politics?”

Victor Antonio Martinez-Hernandez, 23, arrives in Maryland. He is charged with first-degree murder and first-degree rape in Rachel Morin's death on the Ma & Pa Heritage Trail in Bel Air. (Jerry Jackson/Staff)
Victor Antonio Martinez-Hernandez, 23, arrives Thursday in Maryland. He is charged with murder and rape in Rachel Morin’s death. (Jerry Jackson/Staff)

Gahler told reporters June 15 that “this is the second time in two years that an innocent Harford County woman has lost her life to a criminal in our country illegally.” He was referring to the 2023 killing of 20-year-old Kayla Hamilton, leading to the arrest of a 17-year-old undocumented boy.

The sheriff has complained about Democratic policies before, accusing state lawmakers in the Democratic-controlled General Assembly in 2023 of favoring “pro-criminal, anti-police” bills.

While Trump has made the border a signature issue, other Republicans and Democrats have addressed it, as well. Biden recently imposed significant restrictions on immigrants seeking asylum in the U.S., then offered potential citizenship to about 500,000 people without legal status who are married to U.S. citizens and have been living in the country for more than a decade.

Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. Andy Harris, the Republican representing the district, repeated on the social media platform X Gahler’s statement that “American citizens are not safe because of failed immigration policies.”

Flavio Hickel, an assistant political science professor at Washington College on the Eastern Shore, said it wasn’t surprising to see the Morin case enter the national dialogue.

“Anti-immigrant sentiment sells whenever people are nervous about the economy,” Hickel said  “This is Trump’s bread and butter to begin with, and this is a time where it can become more salient.”

Trump has also blamed what he calls Biden’s “open border” policies for the fatal beating in February of Laken Riley, a University of Georgia student on a morning run. Jose Ibarra, 26, a migrant from Venezuela, was charged.

It is a fallacy to call the border “open,” said Jennica Larrison, executive director of the University of Baltimore’s School of Public and International Affairs. It wasn’t until May 2023, Larrison said, that Biden lifted a Trump program called Title 42 that had blocked potential border crossers from seeking asylum in the U.S. to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

“This narrative of a wild, wild west border is just an incredibly different situation than what’s actually happening,” she said.

Martinez-Hernandez tried to enter the United States four times in 2023, when Title 42 was in effect, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. ICE said he was able to “unlawfully” enter on Feb. 13, 2023, on his fourth attempt. Gahler said Martinez-Hernandez moved around the U.S. doing odd jobs, with stops in Virginia as well as Maryland, California and Oklahoma. Charging documents in the Morin case say he lived as recently as last month with relatives in Maryland and they helped authorities with the investigation.

At Friday’s hearing, Harford County State’s Attorney Alison Healey said Martinez-Hernandez is wanted on an international warrant for the homicide outside a bar in El Salvador in approximately December 2022.

Rachel Morin's mother, Patricia Morin, offers remarks Saturday after the arrest of a man accused of her daughter's murder during a Harford County Sheriff's news conference.
Rachel Morin’s mother, Patricia Morin, speaks June 15, 2024, after the arrest of a man accused of her daughter’s killing.

Harford County has both a small Latino population and a small immigrant population overall, according to 2020 census data. The survey found that 5.4% of Harford’s population is Hispanic or Latino, or about 14,000 people.

Outside Supermercado Campos, a grocery store and restaurant in Aberdeen, a sign advertises services to send money internationally. Past rows of Latin American products like maseca and papayas is a taqueria and pupuseria.

A woman there Wednesday who requested anonymity due to safety concerns said she has noticed “discriminatory” comments below articles shared on Facebook about Morin.

“We aren’t all the same,” said the woman, who is originally from El Salvador, in Spanish. “All of us came here to work. Some others came to violate the laws.” The woman’s immigration status is not known.

She said it wasn’t fair to depict all immigrants as criminals when “the world has people who are good and people who are bad.”

Cathryn Paul, public policy director of the Maryland immigrant rights group CASA, said it was “heartbreaking” to see leaders using Morin’s death to make sweeping, fear-based generalizations about immigrants.

“It leads to even more harmful policies that do more damage than good,” Paul said.

Recent studies, including a 2024 report by Northwestern University economist Elisa Jácome and others, found immigrants were consistently less likely to be incarcerated than people born in the U.S. A study the previous year by Stanford University’s Institute for Economic Policy Research reached the same conclusion and said the likelihood of an immigrant being incarcerated was 60% lower than among those born in the U.S.

Harford County has fewer organizations and institutions to serve immigrants compared to the immediate Baltimore area and Maryland’s Washington, D.C., suburbs. For instance, unlike Baltimore County, which has a chief of immigrant affairs and a New Americans Task Force — or Baltimore City with its Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs — there is no specific Harford government liaison to immigrant communities.

A community resource guide published by the county mostly lists organizations in Baltimore, Washington and Northern Virginia that serve immigrants and refugees. The exception is LASOS Inc. (Linking All So Others Succeed), a Bel Air organization that offers services such as English as a second language instruction and bilingual youth programs.

For all of the immigration debate in Maryland and elsewhere, Hickel, the Washington College professor, said he’s not sure there are many people who haven’t come to one conclusion or another.

“Most people are not movable, right?” he said. “They’re already sort of locked into supporting one party or the other.”

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