Latinos' power in numbers

Naturalized citizens are becoming a political factor in Maryland that demands to be recognized

27 Days Until Nov. 7

October 11, 2006|By Tom Dunkel | Tom Dunkel,Sun Reporter

SILVER SPRING — SILVER SPRING-- --Today's lesson is survival.

A few brave members of the class at Eastern Middle School volunteer to take turns reading aloud from a short story by Jack London titled "Love of Life," a tale of the frozen Yukon, starvation and human perseverance.

"The man ... was alone in ... the empty... land," one student reads haltingly, tiptoeing over sentences as if they were etched on thin ice. "He was alone ... but he was not ... lost. He knew the way ... to their ... camp.

Four nights a week, more than 500 men and women - all immigrants trying to make their way in a strange, sometimes inhospitable environment - wedge themselves into small metal desks in a classroom here.

Casa of Maryland, a Silver Spring-based Latino advocacy organization, pays for the off-hour use of 23 rooms. Its English-as-a-second-language curriculum is one of the state's largest adult-education programs, funded in part by Montgomery and Prince George's counties and Baltimore City.

But Casa of Maryland's interests extend beyond literacy. It is pushing hard both to register new voters and to produce naturalized Americans.

"We have quadrupled our citizenship classes since May first," says Kim Propeack, director of community organizing and political action.

As the Nov. 7 election nears, the expectation is that immigration issues will loom large here in Montgomery County.

The 8th Congressional District, for example, has the highest concentration of Latinos in Maryland. They account for more than 15 percent of the population in the district and almost 7 percent of eligible voters, according to the Pew Hispanic Center in Washington. Statewide, there are roughly 316,000 Latinos, of whom an estimated 95,000 are registered voters.

A few months ago, the Pew Hispanic Center surveyed 2,000 Hispanic adults nationwide and asked, among other things, whether they felt that the continuing debate on immigration would affect voting preferences.

"Three-quarters of them said yes," recalls Gabriel Escobar, the center's associate director. "Whether it will produce an increase in the turnout, we'll have to wait and see."

Some of those potential voters are Casa of Maryland students. Nicolas Lainez, one of the Jack London readers, is a 36-year-old refugee from El Salvador now living in Lanham. He recently became a U.S. citizen, and he closely follows the political dramas pertaining to construction of a fence along the Mexican border and proposals to cap immigration and limit access to social services.

"It affects me directly because my wife, she's illegal," he says. "To me, it's all these kinds of political things. They're blaming on us all these 9/11 things."

Lainez came to the United States in 1986 and, after beginning life anew as a dishwasher, carved out a career as a manager for a produce company. However, he increasingly feels the sting of being regarded suspiciously, despite never having had any brush with the law: "I don't want people pointing at me that I'm the bad man. I'm being a good citizen of the United States."

Lainez has not declared any party affiliation, but if he does take that step he said he'll become a Democrat out of growing frustration with President Bush.

"I think Mr. Bush invests in war and all kinds of things instead of his own people," he says.

Down the hall, Henry Argueta teaches an entry-level English language class. He was born in Maryland but returned with his mother to El Salvador at age 11, then came home in 2002. Now 34, he is married with two children and works as a baker.

Argueta, registered as an independent, took part in several pro-immigration rallies this spring and guesses "maybe 80 percent" of his night school students are in the country illegally. He would like to see a statute allowing long-term work permits.

"Maybe if they improve some laws, some of them can stay," Argueta says. "I think sometimes some of the laws are inhuman or unjust."

Immigration is a priority for him. He's most interested in the U.S. Senate race in Maryland, because Congress will have the biggest responsibility for overhauling immigration policy. He hasn't decided whether to support Democrat Benjamin L. Cardin or Republican Michael S. Steele. Regardless, Argueta tells his students the best solution won't be found in a voting booth.

"The most obstacles they have isn't immigration or politics. It's the language," he says. "You have to learn the language and the culture so you can adjust and become a good citizen."

Democrat Thomas Perez, the Montgomery County councilman who was forced out of the state attorney general's race when a court ruled that he did not have sufficient legal experience in Maryland, is involved in voter registration efforts on behalf of Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, who hopes to unseat Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

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