As Gov. Martin O'Malley has extended a welcoming hand to immigrant children fleeing Central America, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Anthony G. Brown and Republican rival Larry Hogan have staked out starkly different positions on whether he is doing the right thing.
Brown, O'Malley's lieutenant governor, is backing the governor's actions in joining with religious leaders to help federal efforts to resettle unaccompanied minors while they await immigration hearings.
Hogan opposes O'Malley's position. He says the state should do nothing that would make it easier for children who have entered the country illegally to come to Maryland — even if they would be coming here to live with family members.
How their positions influence voters — if at all, in a race expected to be dominated by economic issues — will be decided by the Nov. 4 general election.
Donald F. Norris, chairman of the public policy department at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, said Hogan ran as arguably the most moderate candidate in the Republican primary, and won convincingly.
"He doesn't need to take this kind of hard-line position," Norris said. "Where he's hurting himself here is in the middle, where he needs the votes."
But Brad Botwin, director of the anti-illegal-immigration group Help Save Maryland, predicts that the issue will cut in Hogan's favor as parents see the new arrivals straining resources as their children's schools.
"From an important standpoint, Hogan is correct," Botwin said. "Charity begins at home. We must take care of our own children first."
The candidates' positions largely reflect the prevailing positions of their parties at a time when the tide of unaccompanied minors crossing the southern border has pushed immigration to the top of the national political agenda.
An estimated 60,000 children, mostly from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, have entered the United States since October. The nonpartisan Congressional Research Service reports they have come for a mix of reasons —poor economic prospects in their home countries, to reunite with family members, or to flee gang violence.
Maryland, with one of the nation's greatest concentrations of Central Americans, already has absorbed more than 2,200 children through family reunification efforts of the federal government. That is more than any other state on a per capita basis. The state has taken in more than 10 times as many of these children as Florida — a state with three times Maryland's population.
These legal temporary settlements have taken place with little involvement of state government. Still, O'Malley has been in the forefront of Democrats nationally arguing that the children should be welcomed as refugees, not hustled out of the country.
O'Malley, who is considering a run for his party's presidential nomination in 2016, has called together an interfaith group of religious leaders to craft a plan to help house some of the minors who have reached this country — through family reunification, stepped-up use of the federal foster care program and, as a last resort, group shelters.
Hogan declined to be interviewed for this article. But he told WBAL-AM that O'Malley's approach is "unfair to the taxpayers of Maryland" and to the children themselves.
He said the safety and welfare of the children is his first concern.
"I want to reunite them with their parents back in their home countries," Hogan said. "I think it makes no sense whatsoever to be taking these kids and busing them thousands of miles away from their port of entry to try to house them in Maryland, where we're not even able to take care of our own kids and we've got a broken health care system."
Brown told The Baltimore Sun that Maryland should do its part to care for children in need, though he said Congress should reimburse states and local governments for their expenses. He rejected Hogan's position that the children should be kept near the border rather than reunited with families in Maryland.
"The notion that we would warehouse them in detention centers is unacceptable," he said. "Every child, everywhere is better served and better suited from being with their families than being raised by government."
Baltimore Sun reporter Erin Cox contributed to this article.