Immigration debate splits Marylanders

State and local leaders wrestle with changing views

  • Sheriff Chuck Jenkins and his deputies at the Frederick County Adult Detention Center have helped federal authorities identify nearly 1,000 illegal immigrants in the past three years.
Sheriff Chuck Jenkins and his deputies at the Frederick County… (Jed Kirschbaum, Baltimore…)
July 31, 2011|By Julie Bykowicz, The Baltimore Sun

At a tidy jail in Frederick County, Sheriff Chuck Jenkins and his deputies have helped federal authorities identify nearly 1,000 illegal immigrants for deportation in the past three years.

In a renovated mansion in Prince George's County, Casa de Maryland employees have welcomed tens of thousands of immigrants over the years, regardless of legal status, teaching them English, helping with citizenship paperwork and defending them against policies like the one in Frederick County.

Maryland has a split personality about illegal immigrants — a divide illustrated this year by the legislature's passage of a bill to provide college tuition breaks to undocumented state high school graduates only to have it put on hold by a citizen petition.

Though it is far from the nation's northern and southern borders, Maryland has seen immigration issues stir public policy and public opinion as much as any other state in recent years. That fervor will only increase as immigrant advocates and opponents prepare for the November 2012 election, which is to include the ballot question on tuition.

Political observers said failure to address illegal immigration on a national level, combined with a sour economy that has left millions of Americans without a job, has fueled anger locally, even in Democratic-leaning Maryland. That anger — and its counterpoint — can be heard on the streets of Baltimore.

[Illegal immigrants are] "breaking the law by being here, and they're taking our jobs by working for less money and working under the table," said Stacie Houck, 32, manager of a Lexington Market liquor store and a resident of the Overlea area.

Others, like Burnell Jones, are more welcoming. "This is America, land of the free," said Jones, 59, a downtown Baltimore resident who said he works as a counselor for the mentally disabled. "They're coming over here and getting busy. Good for them. If I apply myself, I don't have to worry about anyone taking my job."

Maryland is the state with the 10th-largest population of unauthorized immigrants, according to a study released this year by the Pew Hispanic Center. The estimated 275,000 illegal immigrants account for nearly 5 percent of the state's population.

Maryland's top elected officials have generally been protective of illegal immigrants. Critics of illegal immigrants say Maryland's permissive approach has made it a "sanctuary state."

The Democratic-led General Assembly has repeatedly rejected efforts to require state contractors to use E-Verify, a federal immigration status system backed by President Barack Obama and used in at least a dozen other states.

And until 2009, Maryland was one of just four states, and the only one east of the Rocky Mountains, that permitted undocumented immigrants to obtain a driver's license. As a compromise on that measure, undocumented immigrants who had driver's licenses can renew until 2015 but receive a license stamped "not acceptable for federal purposes."

State, federal and local grants, and tax credits, also have helped finance the renovation of Casa de Maryland's headquarters in Langley Park, and the immigrant advocacy group draws money from local and state contracts for services such as English tutoring and operating day labor sites.

Gustavo Torres, director of the organization, said state lawmakers, and in particular African-American leaders, have shielded immigrants in Maryland from policies like those in states such as Arizona and Utah, which have aggressive programs to check immigration status.

"They protect civil rights," Torres said of Maryland lawmakers. "They understand."

Locally, though, policies affecting illegal immigrants run the gamut.

Montgomery County's community college has given in-state tuition rates to illegal immigrants for years. The county, which shares part of its northern border with Frederick County, is rated one of the friendliest places in the nation for illegal immigrants.

At the same time, jails across the state — except in Baltimore and Montgomery County — are using the federal Secure Communities program to check the immigration status of people who have been arrested and detained. Frederick County's Jenkins uses an even more thorough immigration check at his detention center.

Unlawful immigrants, Jenkins said, "are bleeding into our communities," draining social services and the economy. He says he has tapped into "a growing frustration" with national immigration policies. "Congress has failed to do its job."

A decade of national immigration reform talks ended with Congress' failure last year to pass the Dream Act, which would have extended citizenship to some children of illegal immigrants if those children served in the military or pursued higher education. Congress, now focused on the economy and job loss, is unlikely to revisit the issue soon.

Caught in the middle are Maryland's illegal immigrants.

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