Unwelcome Workers

Congress must decide what to do with an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants - 250,000 in Maryland

Issue: Illegal Immigration

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October 01, 2006|By Kelly Brewington | Kelly Brewington,SUN STAFF

Adriana Pelaez never considered herself much of an activist. But when she learned of a congressional proposal that would make felons out of people like herself, she took to the streets with hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants and their supporters, demanding an opportunity to live without fear.

Pelaez, 31, who fled Mexico three years ago and works as a nanny in Baltimore, has even lobbied her representatives on Capitol Hill, who she knows hold the answer to whether she can stay or must go.

Whoever is elected to the U.S. Congress in November will be forced to confront the intractable issue of illegal immigration and the fate of nearly 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States, including an estimated quarter of a million in Maryland.

Indeed, a flood of illegal immigration has become a major political hot potato nationally, with cross-currents of advocacy from business owners who depend on illegal workers, people concerned about border security and immigrant advocates.

The front-runners seeking to represent Maryland in Congress have avoided suggesting specific immigration reform solutions, relying instead on generalities. While many offer rhetoric that embraces a comprehensive solution, some others argue that enforcement of existing laws and tightening the Mexican border should be the utmost priority.

Meanwhile, Congress is at an impasse. Enforcement-only measures passed last spring by the House of Representatives sparked immigrants and their advocates to wage huge demonstrations in cities across the country. Some of those get-tough provisions resurfaced last week when the House passed three Republican-backed bills, including one that would force voters to show proof of citizenship at the polls.

This summer, the Senate took a different tack, passing a comprehensive measure that included a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants and a temporary worker program.

Political observers say it's unlikely the disparate sides will come to any agreement on immigration this year.

While advocates on the two sides of the debate are at odds over illegal immigration, they agree that Maryland politicians cannot afford to evade the issue for much longer. Though the state has largely escaped the ugly political clashes that have troubled border states, Maryland's undocumented population will only continue to swell and the dilemma over how to cope will grow more complex.

Those hoping to clamp down on the illegal immigrant population warn that a burgeoning population will continue to burden an already strained health care system and raise the taxpayer costs of public school education.

Meanwhile, immigrant advocates caution that the plight of the undocumented and their families will only grow more tenuous, as they are continue to be shut out of jobs that guarantee fair wages, financial assistance for college tuition and opportunities to learn English because of a shortage of funds for language programs.

Look no further to see the clash of these divergent views than to Gaithersburg, a Montgomery County community of 58,000 that has been divided over a day laborer center.

On its face it's a conflict over whether workers, many of them suspected to be illegal, should be allowed to congregate on a corner to find work. But the debate in Gaithersburg encapsulates the thorny questions of illegal immigration being confronted nationwide: the impact of a growing Latino presence, debates over how and where English is spoken, concerns about whether immigrants are taking jobs away from natives or if immigrants are simply doing work Americans won't.

Recently, simmering tensions bubbled over when Gaithersburg police threatened to jail men found congregating at a shopping center parking lot where they frequently wait for employers to hire them.

The workers have since moved a block away, while city leaders and residents remain at odds over whether the city should fund a center for them. At the proposed center, laborers could learn English and job skills, similar to others operated in the state by the immigrant advocacy group CASA of Maryland.

But residents like Stephen Schreiman, who heads the Maryland chapter of the Arizona-based vigilante group the Minutemen Civilian Defense Corps, object to local funds being used for such a center. Schreiman said Minutemen members occasionally monitor the site, hoping to identify employers who hire illegal workers in the hopes of filing a civil suit against them.

"I'm opposed to taxpayer money being spent on criminal activity, first of all," he said. "But I'm also opposed to the fact that the end result is these people are being hired by contractors and businesses at substandard wages, and they cannot earn a reasonable living."

He said the influx of illegal immigrants has resulted in illegal boarding homes that are an eyesore.

"People feel they have lost their neighborhoods," he said.

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