Dozens of groups from around the state - representing ethnic groups, lawyers, churches, unions and local government - flocked to Annapolis yesterday to oppose a package of bills targeting "illegal aliens" in Maryland.
Three Republican delegates who sponsored the bills argued that the public is on the side of their efforts to curb driving by undocumented residents and involve local police in enforcing immigration laws, but that support wasn't apparent yesterday as opponents far outnumbered proponents.
Among those weighing in against the bills were two potential Democratic candidates for governor - Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan and Mayor Martin O'Malley.
"These bills would take us backwards," Duncan said at a news conference that preceded hours of hearings on a series of immigrant-related bills. "They're wrong, they're mean-spirited, they're misguided."
The news conference turned into a spirited rally punctuated by chants in Spanish of "Si se puede," or "Yes, we can."
Edgar Ramirez, a Guatemalan-born Army veteran who recently returned from service in Iraq, delivered an angry speech criticizing legislation he said would expose him to police harassment.
"How can I be a hero in Iraq but when I get back here I am a public enemy?" said the Langley Park man, who said that despite his Army service he is not yet a U.S. citizen.
Many of the activists who attended the news conference stayed for the hearings, which drew an overflow crowd even after they were moved from the House Judiciary Committee's usual meeting place to a larger room.
They heard Dels. Patrick L. McDonough and Richard K. Impallaria, Republicans from Baltimore County, urge the panel to approve their bill requiring local law enforcement officers to detain and turn over to federal authorities anyone they determine to be illegal immigrants.
McDonough told the panel that polls show 87 percent of the American public want legislators to take action to curb illegal immigration.
"They cost us money with health care," McDonough said. "They do not pay taxes. Illegals in this country are un-American. It flies in the face of the Constitution."
David Conn, representing the Maryland Jewish Alliance, noted the diversity of the opponents as he testified as part of a panel of religious groups.
"Muslims, Catholics, the Lutherans, the Jews - we're all up here together," he said. "How often does that happen? It's got to count for something."