Hispanic affairs panel unhappy with Schmoke


When Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke announced last week that he would have city employees make sweeps of Baltimore construction sites in search of illegal aliens, he did so without consulting his own committee on Hispanic affairs.

Yesterday, members of the committee, who said the announcement is the mayor's most visible policy decision yet affecting Baltimore's Hispanic population, said they were insulted both by the decision itself and by the fact that the mayor did not consult the committee beforehand.

"This is a tremendous slap in the face," said Servando A. Llanio, chairman of the Mayor's Committee on Hispanic Affairs. "I think he is sending a message out that he wants to run the city in a discriminatory manner."

Last week, Mr. Schmoke announced the creation of a team made up of investigators from the Public Works Department and the Wage Commission, led by the city solicitor's office. Mr. Schmoke said the investigators would go unannounced to various construction sites -- particularly those involving publicly funded projects -- to review citizenship documentation for workers and forward any evidence to the federal Immigration and Naturalization Service.

Mr. Schmoke's announcement came after 13 illegal aliens, from Mexico and Central America, were arrested by INS officials at a construction site in Mount Vernon, which prompted complaints from union leaders that contractors employing illegal aliens are forcing legitimate contractors out of work.

Members of the committee said they are concerned that the increased surveillance would make employers turn away even properly documented aliens or Latino U.S. citizens, rather than risk federal sanctions for hiring illegals. They said the mayor's crackdown would make even properly documented immigrants more apprehensive in dealing with the authorities.

"They're making criminals out of people whose only crime was being born poor, and the picture that paints to the community is that we are lawbreakers who come here to steal jobs," said Gali R. Sanchez, a spokesman for the committee.

Mr. Schmoke said yesterday that he did not consult the panel before announcing his intentions because to do so would imply that committee members knew that undocumented Latinos were getting jobs illegally, but were doing nothing about it.

"Going to them [committee members] on something like this assumes they knew it was going on," Mr. Schmoke said. "I think some of them would react rather negatively to that approach."

But committee members, including Mr. Sanchez, say Mr. Schmoke is out of touch with the Hispanic community and has a paternalistic attitude toward it.

"Of course we know what's going on, we're in the community, we're in the streets," said Mr. Sanchez, who said he would resign from the committee if the mayor implements the sweeps. "If we didn't know it was going on, we have no business being on the committee. But we want our point of view to be part of city policy."

Members of the committee said the mayor's decision is only the latest example of Schmoke administration insensitivity to the city's Latino population, which 1990 census figures place at 7,602 -- 36 fewer than in 1980. Community leaders say that distrust of authorities led to a massive undercount, and that the city's Latino population is more than 15,000.

Earlier this year, the housing department transferred the city's only Spanish-speaking housing inspector away from the Southeast Baltimore neighborhoods that are the center of the city's small Spanish-speaking community. Community leaders say the housing inspector was invaluable to non-English-speaking Latino city residents for information on rat eradication, lead paint abatement and other housing department services that English-speaking city residents take for granted.

Members also said they have been disappointed by what they said was the mayor's refusal to allow the committee to take an official stand against a Maryland bill -- which eventually died in committee -- that would have made English Maryland's official language.

Members also say the administration has been slow to make good on a promise to turn over a surplus building to members of the Hispanic community for a community center.

"This comes as news to me," the mayor said yesterday. "I am open. Certainly, if the committee wants to meet with me on these issues, I'll meet with them, but I'm not suggesting that all of their concerns will be satisfied."

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