Friday, March 21, 2008

Immigration measures stall in General Assembly

Some lawmakers happy, some frustrated

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ANNAPOLIS — With only days left in the 2008 legislature, the General Assembly has made little progress on addressing immigration, and some lawmakers would like to keep it that way.

‘‘If we just stay where we are, that’s great,” Del. Saqib Ali said. ‘‘There’s been a lot of heated debate around the issue. ... Part of my job is to make sure we don’t go down the path of targeting one of Maryland’s greatest strengths, its diversity.”

Across the border in Virginia, Prince William County has increased immigration enforcement by local police and made access to public services for illegal immigrants nearly impossible.

Ali (D-Dist. 39) of Gaithersburg said similar laws would be fought down in Annapolis.

‘‘The state doesn’t have the money to do the federal government’s job,” he said.

On the other side of the debate, bills targeting what legislators say is an influx of illegal immigrants have persisted into the late days of the session. None have advanced.

‘‘There’s been a lot of frustration, but there’s frustration here on a daily basis,” said Del. Richard A. Sossi (R-Dist. 36) of Stevensville. ‘‘Sometimes, you have to throw your hands up and say ‘We’re doing what we can.’ ... A lot of it has been in one ear, out the other.”

One bill — introduced by Del. Warren E. Miller (R-Dist. 9A) of Woodbine — would have endangered state funding for local governments that have sanctuary policies. Currently, only Baltimore city and Takoma Park have official sanctuary city policies. The bill was voted out of the House Judiciary Committee earlier this month.

Other bills would require anyone registering to vote to show proof of legal residency, and several measures would require proof of legal residency in the United States to get a driver’s license, a requirement under the federal Real ID Act. Both were discussed this week and await committee votes.

Six states, including Maryland, currently issue driver’s licenses regardless of immigration status, according to the state’s Department of Legislative Services.

‘‘That is the biggest piece, and we can’t move on to other things until we do this,” said Del. Ronald A. George (R-Dist. 30) of Arnold. ‘‘We can go further if people want to after we pass this piece of it. ... We’ve become more of a target, as the place for illegal immigrants to go.”

George and several other sponsors of a Proof of Legal Presence Act held a news conference Wednesday morning to discuss the bill, which Del. Don H. Dwyer Jr. admitted was ‘‘dead on arrival” at the House Judiciary Committee.

‘‘It’s not the will of the chairman, and the leadership of the state,” said Dwyer (R-Dist. 31) of Glen Burnie.

At the news conference, House Minority Leader Anthony J. O’Donnell (R-Dist. 29C) of Lusby said that as the federal government works on fixing the borders, it is ‘‘imperative that we stop incentivizing” illegal immigration on the state level.

‘‘The driver’s license is used as a passport for everything else,” he said.

According to the Department of Legislative Services, more than 1,500 immigration bills were introduced by state legislatures in 2007. Of those, 244 bills were enacted in 46 states. Immigration in Maryland is concentrated in Montgomery, Prince George’s and Frederick counties, with nearly 50 percent of recent immigrants making Montgomery County home.

Del. Victor R. Ramirez (D-Dist. 47) of Mount Rainier said progressive policies in place were working well enough as the federal government continued grappling with its own problems coming up with comprehensive immigration reform.

‘‘We want to make sure that we’re focused on doing what we need to be doing ... talking about all immigration, and not creating a class that will go underground for fear of the government,” Ramirez said.

Earlier this session, lawmakers created the New Americans Caucus, comprising immigrants or children of immigrants in the legislature. Their aim has been to keep anti-immigrant bills away from votes on the House and Senate floors.

Ukrainian-born Del. Kirill Reznik said the caucus would take time after the session to look at strategies for the next session. One focus could be legislation similar to a bill sponsored by Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr. (D-Dist. 18) of Kensington that would study the effects of immigration in Maryland.

‘‘We need to take a step back and take a thorough look at where we are,” said Reznik (D-Dist. 39) of Germantown. ‘‘We need to enter things not with a lot of heated jargon and a lot of passion on the issue, but rather ... take a hard look at what needs to be done. There’s a lot of bad information out there ... that vilifies immigrants.”

Kim Propeack, a lobbyist for immigrant advocacy group Casa of Maryland, said hearing testimony this session has been particularly ‘‘uncivil.”

‘‘We’ve been facing off some pretty extremist measures this year surrounding immigration,” Propeack said. ‘‘And we’re still furiously fighting.”

Del. Kriselda Valderrama said immigration is no longer even a partisan issue.

‘‘Sometimes I sit there and bite my lip, because everyone has a right to say what they want. ... But we’re here to represent everyone,” said Valderrama (D-Dist. 26) of Fort Washington. ‘‘It is what it is, so we need to deal with it today and move on. ... I don’t know how to please both sides.”