The annual campaign by interest groups to persuade Maryland's governor to sign -- or veto -- legislation sitting on his desk is taking an unusually emotional twist this spring.
In a radio spot airing statewide, a father who lost his son Sept. 11, 2001, sternly urges Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. to reject a bill to study ways of making it easier for undocumented workers to obtain Maryland driver's licenses.
"He was 23 when terrorists struck the World Trade Center," Peter Gadiel of Connecticut says in the ad. "I can't bring Jamie back. But I can help prevent terrorists from striking again. ... Maryland lawmakers have sent a bill to Governor Ehrlich that lets illegal aliens acquire Maryland driver's licenses."
Gadiel goes on to say that, if signed, the legislation "would be a priceless tool for terrorists" because they could get a license without a background, criminal or immigration check.
"Don't let Maryland's license to drive become a license to kill," the ad concludes.
But Hispanic activists and some lawmakers say the ad is egregiously false and represents a new low for lobbying efforts designed to mislead the public.
"These groups hate immigration ... and they are running ads like this here and in other states because as much as possible they want to manipulate the discussion around immigration," said Kimberley A. Propeack, an attorney with the Maryland Latino Coalition for Justice, which is urging radio stations not to run the ad.
The spot was sponsored by an obscure group called 9/11 Families for a Secure America, but funded by the Federation for American Immigration Reform -- a Washington-based group with deep roots in the anti-immigration movement.
The sponsors say the ad, which asks people to call Ehrlich and urge a veto, has generated hundreds of messages to the governor's office. Both organizations refuse to say how much is being spent on the campaign, and there is no requirement for them to disclose their spending to any Maryland agency.
The effort is one of several trying to persuade Ehrlich to veto particular pieces of legislation. The White House is pressuring the governor to oppose a bill to reduce the penalty for terminally ill patients who use marijuana, while the national Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association has raised questions about a measure to change the board and refocus the mission of CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield.
The only bill that Ehrlich has definitively said he will veto is a $135 million revenue measure that would increase corporate filing fees, create a health maintenance organization premium tax and close so-called corporate tax loopholes. On other legislation, Ehrlich and his staff say the administration is reviewing the bills.
The driver's license study bill, however, is generating intense emotion from both sides.
When initially introduced in January to the General Assembly, the legislation sought to make it easier for immigrants to obtain a driver's license by requiring the state Motor Vehicle Administration to accept additional forms of identification.
But lawmakers drastically scaled back the bill. What passed the legislature is an 18-month study of the issue -- a tactic the Assembly sometimes uses to gracefully kill a piece of legislation. The bill includes a provision requiring driver's license applicants to supply the MVA with their Social Security numbers. A new federal mandate requires states to collect the numbers as a way of tracking parents who evade paying child support.
"The radio ads are false. It's a study, it doesn't put anything into law, " Propeack said.
Gadiel stands by the ad and vows to continue the campaign.
"I can tell you our members find it incredible, just incredible that after 9/11 there are people around that really want to give terrorists driver's licenses," said Gadiel, the head of 9/11 Families for a Secure America.
Gadiel, whose son James worked on the 103rd floor of the World Trade Center's North Tower, is basing his argument on a part of the bill that says applicants who do not have Social Security numbers must sign sworn statements to that effect.
Gadiel charges that provision means illegal immigrants could obtain Maryland driver's licenses by simply swearing they do not have Social Security numbers. (The MVA does not require applicants to supply those numbers.)
"Without a Social Security number you are anonymous," said Gadiel, who also serves on FAIR's advisory board. "You could be John Doe or [Sept. 11 hijacker] Mohammed Atta."
Gail Moran, the MVA's legislative and regulatory manager, said Gadiel's argument is misleading.
She notes if the bill becomes law, applicants without Social Security numbers would have to show other forms of identification and citizenship -- such as birth certificates, work visas or passports.
"I don't think the ads address what is contained in the bill as passed by the General Assembly," Moran said.
Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee who worked to amend the bill, called the radio ads "grossly misleading."
Latino and social activists say the radio spot airing in Maryland is the latest example of the tactics that FAIR has employed for years to discourage U.S. immigration and political candidates who do not embrace its agenda.
In 2000, FAIR spent $1 million on a media campaign -- which was widely condemned as being unfair -- to defeat former Michigan Sen. Spencer Abraham. Abraham, who is now U.S. energy secretary, had helped write a bill in Congress that let more than 200,000 skilled foreign workers enter the United States.
More recently, FAIR -- which was founded in 1979 -- has been criticized for attempting to use the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to push its anti-immigration agenda.
"FAIR is not shy about exploiting fear of the stranger, be that stranger a refugee from Haiti or a would-be terrorist from the Middle East," said Rick Swartz, a Washington attorney who founded the National Immigration Forum, a group that embraces immigration to the United States. "They have been quite effective at taking a kernel of truth and blowing it up into a fountain of suspicion."
Dan Stein, executive director of FAIR, defended his organization's tactics.
"We have been focusing on document fraud for 25 years, and 9/11 was just a vindication of the concerns we have been raising all along," said Stein, who lives in Rockville.
He also stands by the radio ad, saying, "Some folks have a problem with the First Amendment."
But Propeack is calling on Maryland residents and the Ehrlich administration to reject FAIR's strategy.
"They are opportunists," Propeack said. "What they are really trying to do is get this message out that immigrants are terrorists, immigrants caused 9/11."