Md. illegal immigrants hold hopes for reform

But critics favor law with strict controls


Had it been a better day for German Cruz, he would have been on a construction site, plying one of his several trades - painting, soldering, cutting lumber. But no such luck: Yesterday afternoon, the 52-year- old Honduran was still standing outside the 7-Eleven in Washington Hill, waiting with friends from Mexico, El Salvador and Guatemala in the hope that someone might pull up in need of cheap labor.

A surplus of such downtime - Cruz says he generally lands work three or four days a week and might make $6 or $7 an hour - has given him the opportunity to closely follow the debate in Congress on immigration reform. From the corner of East Lombard Street and South Broadway, he gestured toward a row of restaurants, markets and shops, each with Spanish names and Latino clientele.

"If the United States wants to extradite all of the foreigners who are here, what will happen?" Cruz asked in Spanish. "We work. We support businesses. We contribute.

"The United States has a value for us. But we have a value for the United States, too."

With the U.S. Senate set to begin debate this week on immigration reform, some among Maryland's illegal immigrants - a population estimated as high as 250,000 - expressed hope for a law that would allow them to stay and work legally in this country. Critics, meanwhile, want to see stricter controls at the borders and harsher penalties for those who assist foreigners who have entered illegally.

"We obviously don't believe in a blanket amnesty," said Stephen Schreiman, Maryland state director of the Minutemen, a group that favors tougher immigration enforcement. "Why should people that broke the law to get here be given amnesty? And why should they be given the same privileges as people who came here legally?"

The U.S. House of Representatives voted in December to make it a felony to be in the United States illegally. The House bill also makes it illegal to give nonemergency assistance to undocumented migrants and authorizes construction of a 700-mile fence along the border with Mexico.

The Senate is set to take up several bills on immigration reform, with proposals that range from tightening the borders and strengthening enforcement to allowing the entry of guest workers and enabling illegal immigrants to become eligible for permanent residency.

It is unclear how criminalizing aid to illegal immigrants would affect the work of organizations such as CASA of Maryland. CASA, which advocates for and assists immigrants from Latin American countries, is working to open a center for day laborers in Baltimore. The city has committed $75,000 to the project.

"Those of us who work at CASA, whether we're attorneys or health care providers or teachers, educators or organizers, we feel we have a professional responsibility to help people who are in need of our services," said Eliza Leighton, an attorney for the organization. "We do not see ourselves as immigration officials, so the immigration status of our clients is irrelevant to us. We will continue to operate in such a way that we are not asking."

Antonio Espana would like to work legally. Espana came to the United States from his native Guatemala six years ago, he says, to earn money to send to his wife and children back home. In Maryland for three years, he rents a house in Golden Ring with six other immigrants and works three or four days a week cleaning a private school.

"I understand there are some political persons who don't want immigrants here," he said. "We understand that there are many problems with Iraq and bin Laden. But we are not terrorists. We came here to work. We are looking to advance.

"There is much opportunity in the United States. There is lots of work. But the laws make it difficult."

Not everyone is sympathetic. Donald Ransom was also outside the 7-Eleven yesterday looking for work.

"If they want a job, get a green card," said Ransom, a Pittsburgh native who says he worked as a custodian in the city school system for 23 years. Now, he said, he works as a day laborer one or two days a week.

"I can't get a job, and I see these Mexicans on the roofs, working construction, everywhere," he said. "I ain't prejudiced, but give a man a chance."

Schreiman, who began the state Minuteman chapter in January and plans to patrol the border before the end of the year, says he can't condemn foreigners for wanting to come to the United States.

"I can understand them crossing the border illegally and wanting to come here and earn a living," he said. "I would like to see them go back home and then come here legally.

"What we're looking at, and it's criminal, is the contractors and the business people taking advantage of them, and taking advantage of the taxpayers, because what they don't pay these people in wages and salaries and benefits, the taxpayers pick up at the hospital rooms and the social programs.

"Those are the people who should be thrown in jail."

Leighton, the CASA attorney, says the United States depends on undocumented workers.

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