For years, Maryland's Democrat-led General Assembly has sidestepped serious debates over illegal immigration, but with the issue at the forefront of the presidential race and in the minds of many voters, that might no longer be possible, legislative leaders acknowledge.
While most lawmakers say this year's crop of immigration bills - most of which attempt to cut off benefits to those who can't prove they're in the country legally - have little or no chance of passing, boosters of the legislation have their hopes up that they will at least generate a rigorous debate.
Seeking to handle the matter on their terms, several Democrats are supporting legislation to study the footprint of immigration statewide, including an analysis of the costs of illegal immigrants and how much they pay in taxes.
"Every issue has its time," said state Sen. E.J. Pipkin, an Eastern Shore Republican who has sponsored and promoted some of the bills in his race for the 1st District congressional seat.
Pipkin said Gov. Martin O'Malley's recent decision to put an end to Maryland's practice of giving driver's licenses to foreigners without requiring proof of legal status was a sign that times are changing. "This issue's time has come," he said.
Immigrant advocates in the legislature, who have long fought to beat back initiatives they consider hate-filled, acknowledge that a groundswell of public opinion might make their task more challenging.
"In the past, we've been able to fight off some of these proposals," said Del. Ana Sol Gutierrez, one of the founding members of the New Americans Caucus, a group of lawmakers formed Wednesday to counter what they see as a growing anti-immigrant sentiment in the General Assembly. "That may no longer be possible, as a lot of delegates and senators are responding to constituents that are echoing these anti-immigrant sentiments and claims."
Illegal immigration has become a flash-point issue around the nation as numerous bipartisan attempts to deal with the problem have failed.
In the absence of any federal solution, state legislatures have sought to fill the void. Last year, more than 1,500 bills dealing with immigration were proposed in all 50 states, about a fifth of which became law, according to a report from the National Conference of State Legislatures. Colorado called a special legislative session to deal with the problem in 2006, and so far this year, more than 100 bills dealing with immigration have been introduced in the Virginia General Assembly, according to that legislature's Web site.
But of the 29 bills filed in the Maryland General Assembly since 2005 that have sought to crack down in some way on illegal immigration, none has made it out of committee. Last year's hot debate on immigration was over whether to give a new public benefit to illegal immigrants - in-state college tuition - not whether to take benefits away. The bill narrowly failed.
House Speaker Michael E. Busch said he didn't believe any of the bills against illegal immigrants filed this year would make it out of committee. It's not the role of the states to find a solution to the problem, he said.
"What a lot of states have tried to do over the years ... hasn't been very successful," he said, noting that federal law requires that those who can't prove legal status be allowed to enter public schools and receive treatment at hospitals.
The 20 bills filed so far this year in Maryland include proposals to immediately require Marylanders to show proof of legal status to obtain a driver's license (regulations that would not otherwise kick in until 2010); and prohibit illegal immigrants from being released before trial, from paying in-state tuition or receiving any public benefits other than those required by law.
Even Republican sponsors of the bills said they don't expect them to pass, despite the fact that the driver's license proposal has 58 co-sponsors in the House of Delegates.
The lead sponsor of that legislation, Del. Ron George, said the proposal failed last year in the House Judiciary Committee and probably will again.
"We file these bills every year because we feel we have the votes on the House floor," said George, an Anne Arundel County Republican. "We want to get to the floor to debate these issues, but they never seem to get past the committee chair."
Joseph F. Vallario Jr., the Judiciary chairman and a Calvert and Prince George's County Democrat, predicted the driver's license bill would fail again this year, as would the other proposals.
Instead, several Democrats have said they want to create a commission that would study the impact of immigrants in Maryland.
Sen. Richard Madaleno, the bill's sponsor, cited a 2006 study completed by the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill on the costs and benefits of Hispanic immigrants for North Carolina, which found that it had a $9 billion economic impact, far outweighing any costs to the state.
"Republicans have been putting in quite inflammatory measures to scare people," said Madaleno, a Montgomery County Democrat. "What this bill does is create a task force to look at all the benefits and costs of immigrants in the state, both legal and illegal."
But opponents of illegal immigration are undeterred. Del. Patrick L. McDonough, one of the most active advocates in the legislature for immigration restrictions, said last week that if the General Assembly doesn't act this year, he'll sue.