Laws on illegals under debate

Immigration battles heating up in Md.

March 05, 2006|By KELLY BREWINGTON | KELLY BREWINGTON,SUN REPORTER

For years, Maryland has been insulated from the polarizing battles over immigration that have troubled such immigrant-heavy states as Arizona and California.

Not anymore.

Today, some lawmakers want to make English the official language of Maryland. The Minutemen, a civilian group that has gained notoriety by patrolling border states to apprehend illegal immigrants, are in Montgomery County canvassing day labor centers. Meanwhile, immigrant advocates have stepped up their efforts to oppose state and federal legislation they call xenophobic, while continuing a steady push of proposals to extend rights to the undocumented.

What had been a relatively civilized debate in Maryland is growing more volatile.

Those seeking reform argue that Maryland has avoided confronting illegal immigration for too long, and that the state is out of step with a national push to stem the tide of illegal immigrants.

Immigrant advocates say that the urge on Capitol Hill to fix the country's broken immigration laws - as well as the divisive language that comes with it - has spilled over the Maryland border. Frustrated by a lack of action in Washington, state legislatures nationwide have taken it upon themselves to try to restrict the surge of undocumented families.

"The debate has gotten nastier because the federal debate has become nasty," said Del. Ana Sol Gutierrez, a Democrat from Montgomery County and an advocate for immigrants. "What they have done is changed the language that is acceptable in the mainstream. I think this attitude works on people's fears. It appeals to our lowest nature."

While lawmakers in Annapolis debate their fate, the college-ready students, trade workers, pregnant mothers and sick children whose lives would be helped or harmed by legislative decisions go about their lives.

Karen Salinas-Aguilar, a senior at Patterson High School in Baltimore, receives A's and B's in her classes, doesn't watch television and works evenings at a housekeeping job at a downtown hotel to help her family pay the rent and bills.

She knew no English when she left Mexico City with her mother six years ago to join her father and brother in Fells Point. Now she's ready for college but says she could afford only in-state tuition at a public university. Because she is an illegal immigrant, she is not considered a state resident and would be charged out-of-state prices.

Some lawmakers hope to pass a bill offering Maryland rates to students such as Karen, who hopes to study landscape architecture or interior design. But for now, the letters she has received from colleges hoping to woo her to their campuses will continue to stack up in her bedroom.

"I just am looking to get the opportunity," she said. "Sometimes I imagine going to college and having another life."

For some illegal immigrants, life does not improve in the United States. Last week, federal authorities detained 15 illegal workers from Indonesia, El Salvador, Nepal and China after closing down the upscale Baltimore sushi chain, Kawasaki Restaurant Group, that employed them. Authorities arrested the restaurant owners, charging them with stealing tips from the workers.

Salinas-Aguilar and the restaurant workers represent slices of a growing and diverse population in Maryland. The state's illegal immigrant population more than doubled between 2000 and 2004, swelling from 120,000 to 250,000, according to a recent study by the Pew Hispanic Center.

Supporters of stringent immigration enforcement say those numbers show that Maryland should confront the impact illegal immigrants have on crime, schools and the health care system.

History of generosity

While the voices of immigration critics have dominated the Assembly in recent years, they haven't made much headway.

James G. Gimpel, a professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland, College Park, said efforts to restrict immigration in Maryland might be fueled by a growing debate on the issue on the national level. But Maryland's blue-state political alignment isn't conducive to the push, he said.

"First of all, the Democratic Party has been historically pretty generous to immigrants, and the Democratic Party runs the legislature in Maryland," Gimpel said. "The state has not had an acute job shortage, and concern about immigration tends to rise when jobs are scarce."

When it comes to bills to clamp down on illegal immigration in Maryland, Del. Patrick L. McDonough, a Republican representing Baltimore and Harford counties, has led the charge. Fellow Republican Del. Richard K. Impallaria and a handful of others have joined him.

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