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Immigration debate splits Marylanders

State and local leaders wrestle with changing views

July 31, 2011|By Julie Bykowicz, The Baltimore Sun

On a recent weekday, he was standing on the corner of Broadway and East Lombard Street, waiting for construction work. He said he usually gets a couple of jobs a week but lives in a shelter because the money isn't enough.

Edgar, 35, stood at the same corner. A Guatemala native, he, too, declined to give his last name because he has been in the country illegally for three years. He said he makes about $200 or $300 a week, barely enough to pay for his apartment on Eastern Avenue.

He expects to return to Guatemala in the next few years because work has dwindled and talk about cracking down on illegal immigrants has grown louder.

"It's not getting better, it's getting worse," he said.

Torres has seen the shift in attitude as director of Casa de Maryland. And he knows from personal experience what it's like to be new to the country.

Torres came to America 20 years ago from his native Colombia, as a political refugee. He gained citizenship when he married his wife, though they have divorced. He has been director of Casa de Maryland since 1994.

In his first few years here, he said, "the environment was very different. Now people are very anti-immigrant." People accuse the immigrant community, particularly Latinos, with all kinds of wrongdoing, he said, including crime, problems in schools and the bad economy. "I'm very concerned about it."

He attributes the change in attitude largely to inaction on the federal level and worries that it has damaged sentiment in Maryland.

In its 25 years, Casa has provided language, legal and employment services to immigrants living in Maryland, including many who are here illegally. The state awarded Casa de Maryland more than $660,000 in contracts in the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2010, the most recent data available.

The organization is distinctly political. An affiliate that does not receive government support raises money for candidates and volunteers at political events. Casa recently was part of an open-air town hall near the White House to protest the deportation of a million people during Obama's presidency.

Maryland Labor Secretary Alex Sanchez, whose paternal grandparents came to Chicago, possibly illegally, from Mexico, said the passions stirred by the tuition debate have been "an alarming development."

"It's particularly inappropriate because we are so progressive in this state, and we have such a history of acceptance," he said.

From a labor perspective, Sanchez said, "I want a highly educated work force." And personally — his grandparents never spoke to him about their legal status — he said education has had a "cascading effect" on his family that "helped us achieve the American dream."

This year's fight over extending in-state tuition to illegal immigrants renewed a broader debate. The state legislation passed without any Republican support. More than 108,000 Marylanders signed the petition to have voters decide the matter in November 2012.

To qualify for the discount, an illegal immigrant would have to attend high school in Maryland for three years and show that his or her family had filed state tax returns. The student then could attend a community college at the discounted rate paid by other Maryland residents. After completing 60 credits, he or she could transfer to a four-year college, again at the discounted rate.

Torres said Casa always encourages undocumented workers to file federal tax forms, which do not require a Social Security number. The thinking, he said, is that if the federal government reforms immigration policies, the first people to be given a chance at citizenship would be those who have been paying taxes all along.

Baltimore Sun staffers Nick Madigan and Matthew Hay Brown contributed to this article.

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