60 apply for citizenship at city seminar

November 20, 1994|By Sherry Joe | Sherry Joe,Sun Staff Writer

Immigrants applying for U.S. citizenship in Baltimore yesterday criticized a newly approved California measure denying basic services to illegal immigrants, saying it is a poor way to reduce the number of illegal residents.

"I know it's bad for the children," said Louis Altema, a 40-year-old Haitian native who lives in Columbia. "They are innocent. They should go to school."

But California's Proposition 187 -- approved by voters there this month -- denies public education and government-funded nonemergency health care to illegal immigrants and their children. The controversial ballot question also requires educators, police officers and others to turn in suspected illegal residents.

The measure, passed by 59 percent of the voters in the recent election, has been temporarily delayed by a federal judge in Los Angeles and is being challenged in federal court by the city of Los Angeles and the American Civil Liberties Union.

At a citizenship workshop at Baltimore City Community College yesterday, though, some felt such an initiative would have little chance of success here.

"The minority population is not that large," said Gracia Larios, a 21-year-old Baltimore City resident from Honduras. "The foreign-born population is so small that it's not seen as a threat."

Frank J. Bien, director of the Maryland Office for New Americans, agreed.

"Their situation [in California] and our situation is like apples and oranges," Mr. Bien said, noting that immigrants make up 25 percent of California's population compared with 7 percent of Maryland's population.

But Beltran Navarro, chairman of the Mayor's Committee for Hispanic Affairs, was less optimistic.

"It could happen here very much," he said, noting that the General Assembly passed a bill this year that would have made English Maryland's official language. Gov. William Donald Schaefer vetoed the bill.

Workshops such as yesterday's that help immigrants become naturalized citizens are a more effective way of reducing the number of illegal immigrants and fostering assimilation, organizers said.

"This is a much more positive way to encourage people to speak English," Mr. Bien said. "It's not a punitive thing. It's a positive thing."

During the daylong seminar, immigrants who live as far away as Virginia completed naturalization forms and had their fingerprints and photographs taken. Those at yesterday's workshop now must schedule an interview with INS authorities and pass tests measuring their knowledge of written and spoken English, and American history and government. If they pass, they could become naturalized citizens by April, organizers said.

The workshop is only the second of its kind in Maryland. In September, the Maryland Office for New Americans sponsored a similar session in Prince George's County that attracted about 130 people from 27 different countries.

Yesterday's workshop drew more than 60 people from Haiti, El Salvador, Ethiopia and other nations.

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