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Baltimore weighs in on immigration lawsuit

WASHINGTON — Baltimore joined dozens of cities Friday to support President Barack Obama's actions on immigration — weighing in on a federal lawsuit that has divided state and local leaders over the economic impact of having people in the country without legal documentation.

Texas and 24 other states are arguing in court that Obama's plan to delay deportation for millions of immigrants will force them to spend more on schools, public safety and health care. A dozen states, including Maryland, have countered that bringing immigrants out of the shadows will help increase wages and expand tax bases.

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Advocates say the unusual level of engagement by city and state governments on both sides of the immigration debate is a reaction, in part, to the absence of progress in Congress — and shows a growing desire among mayors and governors to lead on the issue.

"Any city that's growing is growing with the support of the immigrant population," said Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who joined with mayors in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and about 30 other cities Friday in offering their support for a friend-of-the-court brief.

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"I want to do things that support having a growing city and a growing economy," she said.

Obama announced in November that his administration would suspend efforts to deport some immigrants who are the parents of U.S. citizens, and would allow them to apply for work permits. The "deferred action" status would be in place for at least three years.

The administration is also expanding a program that allowed immigrants who entered the country before their 16th birthday to apply for relief. When the program, known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, was announced in 2012, it applied to those who came to the United States by 2007. The administration has moved the cutoff date to 2010.

Texas sued Obama in December, arguing that he had overstepped his authority and that granting those immigrants a semi-legal status would present a financial hardship to the state. Texas law requires state taxpayers to provide health care for the poor. States are also required provide education, regardless of a student's legal status.

"It just comes down to a philosophical difference," said Dale L. Wilcox, executive director of the Immigration Reform Law Institute, a Washington-based group that filed a friend-of-the-court brief siding with Texas. "The 25 states [that sued Obama] basically realized that the economic burden of illegal immigration is harming them."

States — and now cities — that support the president's effort say previous deferrals have not presented a significant burden on government.

On the contrary, they said, giving immigrants the ability to work legally increases employment rates and wages. That, in turn, increases state revenue, they said.

Proponents of the president's actions point to an analysis from the left-leaning Center for American Progress that found 60,000 immigrants in Maryland would be eligible for relief under Obama's actions. If they all received temporary work permits, the center concluded, it would increase state tax revenues by $114 million over five years.

Marielena Hincapie, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center, said it is unusual to have so many states lined up against one another in such a lawsuit. She noted that mayors and governors have been getting more involved in immigration policy.

In Maryland, former Gov. Martin O'Malley signed laws during his tenure to allow immigrants who don't have legal documentation to attend the state's public universities at in-state tuition rates, and to allow some to get driver's licenses. He also sought to limit the disproportionately high number of deportations from the state under a controversial federal program called Secure Communities.

Rawlings-Blake, meanwhile, has gained a national reputation for welcoming immigrants to Baltimore. The mayor issued an executive order to protect the undocumented from discrimination by city agencies and has vowed to expand the city's population by 10,000 families over the decade, including in Baltimore's burgeoning immigrant neighborhoods.

"We've seen a big shift to the state and local level," Hincapie said. "Given the gridlock in Congress and the lack of progress on immigration reform … we'll continue to see states and localities doing more and more on immigration."

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A federal judge could rule in the Texas case as early as next month.

If Texas wins, the director of the Mayor's Office of Immigrant and Multicultural Affairs said, many of Baltimore's immigrants would be forced to "hide in the shadows."

"I hope that is not the case. The president is doing the right thing," director Catalina Rodriguez-Lima said. "In general, immigrants have a positive impact on a city. They're coming from a country in search of a better future, not only for themselves but for their families."

But Joe Cluster, director of the state Republican Party, said the city is simply playing politics by getting involved in the suit.

"I understand Maryland's attorney general signing on to it," he said. "As for the city? I don't know why they're getting involved. They have way more important issues to get involved in than this."

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