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Immigration debate splits Marylanders

ImmigrationIllegal ImmigrantsTax CreditsJustice System

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.

Román, 49, an illegal immigrant from El Salvador who lives in Baltimore, wants nothing more than to remain in the United States, where his wife and their two daughters are well-settled. He has worked as a glass installer since arriving in 2005, and volunteers as a maintenance man in an East Baltimore church.

Román, who would not give his last name for fear of deportation, said his daughters, 18 and 16 years old, attend high school and are dedicated students. But without access to in-state college tuition rates, he said, "they have no hope of moving ahead in life."

In a broader sense, he said, the only hope that he and his family have of staying in the United States is if Congress and President Obama make immigration reform a reality.

"There are always problems when you don't have documents. I pay taxes but have none of the benefits that a legal person has," he said. "I don't like to get into any problem, but my daughters tell me that they see racism and discrimination. I tell them, 'You keep studying and preparing yourselves, because one day you're going to be someone in life who benefits all of society.'"

For some Marylanders, including many of the 32,397 Democrats, 12,628 independents and 63,487 Republicans who signed the in-state tuition petition, the question of how the state treats illegal immigrants is a matter of law.

That's the approach embraced by Jenkins in Frederick County.

"As a law enforcement officer, it is my job to uphold the law," he said of his decision to begin working with U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement soon after he was first elected in 2006. "You have to look at yourself and decide what's right."

Frederick County is the only place in Maryland — and one of 69 jurisdictions in 24 states — to enter into an agreement with the federal authorities called 287(g), named after the section of the immigration code authorizing the program. It's more comprehensive than the widely used Secure Communities program, a database check of immigration status.

Anyone who is arrested and brought to the county detention center receives a sheet with eight questions, including some about immigration status. Every detainee gets the sheet, eliminating potential complaints about racial profiling, Jenkins said

Most people are honest, he said, self-identifying as illegal immigrants if they are. Still, deputies search federal databases and do other research to determine their immigration status.

If the charges wouldn't result in jail time, and the detainee is in the country illegally, he or she is turned over to the ICE. "What sense does it make to pay for incarceration when you can get them out of there?" Jenkins asked.

If the charges are serious — an assault or another violent crime — illegal immigrants go through the local court system. If convicted and sent to jail or prison, a deportation order remains in their file, and they get turned over to the ICE after serving their sentence.

Nationwide, the 287(g) program has been used to identify more than 200,000 unauthorized immigrants and deport about 150,000 of them, said Nicole Navas, an ICE spokeswoman. Frederick County's program has identified 873 foreign nationals in the country unlawfully, Navas said, and 470 have been removed from the United States or granted voluntary return to their home country.

County sheriff's deputies also offer some stories with happy endings. In one case, a man from El Salvador said he was an illegal immigrant, but when Lt. Michael Cronise, a commander in charge of the 287(g) program, checked, he found that the man was born to two Americans. "'Guess what? You're a U.S. citizen,' we told him," Cronise said. "He had no idea he was here legally."

Those who oppose the Frederick program present a different narrative.

In a federal lawsuit filed in November 2009, Roxana Orellana Santos alleges that while eating lunch on a curb near her car a year earlier, she was confronted and detained by Frederick County sheriff's deputies and then jailed in Cambridge for about a month. Her attorneys say the deputies inquired about her immigration status and arrested her even though she had committed no crime.

"They saw her quietly eating her lunch and asked for her identification. Why?" asked Jose Perez, associate general counsel of Latino Justice, which is representing Santos. "Do they do that for anyone sitting down eating lunch in a public area? She has Fourth Amendment rights that apply irrespective of immigration status."

Frederick County is fighting the lawsuit and has argued for its dismissal on technical grounds. No trial date has been set.

Illegal immigrants say they are mindful of their precarious position in Maryland.

Jose, a 28-year-old who would not give his last name because he is undocumented, said he left Honduras for the United States in 2009 "to get a little ahead." He lived briefly in Arizona but found the immigrant-heavy area too competitive, so he moved to Baltimore.

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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