By Pamela Constable and Lisa Rein
Public anger against illegal immigrants, already entrenched in parts of Northern Virginia, is seeping into Maryland. With legislators facing unprecedented demands to take action, fears of a crackdown are spreading among illegal immigrants in a state that has been more tolerant of them.
A record 20 bills targeting illegal immigrants have been introduced in the state legislature this session. Although none of the bills is expected to survive, their supporters are far more vocal and organized than in the past, and the movement has gained recent support in Maryland communities that include Mount Rainier, Gaithersburg and Taneytown.
"If there is any doubt that people like me truly represent the overwhelming majority on this issue, show some courage and put it on a referendum," Margaret Montuori of Bethesda told the House Judiciary Committee at a hearing last week.
Last fall, a Washington Post poll found that about half of Maryland residents considered illegal immigration a problem and that Marylanders were more apt than Virginians to call it a "very serious" problem. Eighty-five percent of those surveyed said they wanted state and local government to take an active role in dealing with the issue.
The clamor is causing alarm among the thousands of day laborers, dishwashers and babysitters who live and work without legal papers in Maryland and who are beginning to see refugees from Virginia in the busy Latino enclaves along the bus routes of Montgomery and Prince George's counties.
"Everywhere you go now, the first thing they ask you for is papers," Juan Perez, 28, a Central American construction worker, said outside a gas station in Langley Park one recent morning. "We do the work faster and cheaper, but no one wants us now. I haven't sent any money home to my family since December, and I can barely pay to sleep in my friend's apartment."
Just across University Boulevard, a battered sedan with Virginia tags pulled up in front of a convenience store. The driver, a carpenter from Guatemala named Raul Romano, 40, said he and his family had recently fled Prince William County, their home for eight years, after it enacted a law allowing police to question immigrants about their legal status.
"Now I am too scared to go back and return my license plates," said Romano, who has lived illegally in the United States for 18 years. "I left my job, my apartment, my daughters left their school. Now, here we are in Maryland, starting over again. We don't know anyone, but it's safer for the moment. Tomorrow, it might be a different story."
The 20 bills introduced in Annapolis -- a sharp increase from three last year -- include proposals that would require driver's license applicants to prove they are lawfully in the country, voters to confirm their legal status at the polls and local governments to enforce federal immigration laws.
Legislators said most have no chance of passage in the Democratic-controlled General Assembly. Some have been killed in committee, and most others are expected to languish until the legislature adjourns next month.
"The voices are louder, but I doubt a single piece of legislation will get through," said Del. Ana Sol Gutierrez (D-Mont). She said opponents of illegal immigration are "better organized now, but they are not convincing the hearts and minds of the people. Maryland is still an immigrant-friendly environment."
Activists against illegal immigration said the legislature is out of touch with public frustration and concern. During hearings in the past two weeks, residents have testified that illegal immigrants are inundating schools, hospitals and suburban neighborhoods and warned that they might bring disease and terrorism.
Opponents also appear to have stalled legislation to give in-state college tuition rates to the children of illegal immigrants. The measure won approval in both chambers in 2003 before being vetoed by then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R). Last year, the House again passed it, but it stalled in the Senate. This year, it is not expected to emerge from a House committee.
"We have more people than we ever expected getting involved. They are mad, but until now, they didn't know what to do about it," said Brad Botwin, a Rockville resident who chairs the activist group Help Save Maryland. "For the first time, the delegates and senators are hearing the majority view on the impact of illegal immigrants on our state."
The atmosphere in some hearings has been tense and heated. In the House Judiciary Committee, chaired by Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr. (D-Prince George's), one activist distributed fake "wanted" posters of Vallario wearing a sombrero.
A construction worker who attended another hearing was arrested afterward for allegedly threatening by e-mail to strangle Gov. Martin O'Malley (D). The man's wife said he was upset after losing work to illegal immigrants.
Susan Payne, an activist from Montgomery County, warned lawmakers that terrorists could threaten the state if obtaining a driver's license is not made more difficult. She also lashed out at CASA of Maryland, a nonprofit group that advocates immigrant rights, calling its staff "paid lobbyists" for a "special interest group."
Kim Propeack, a CASA lobbyist who helped bring dozens of Latinos to the Annapolis hearings, said her organization was trying to counter the "ugliness" of a small activist group by presenting real immigrants and their problems.
Among the scores of illegal laborers who congregate in parking lots and at CASA job centers in Wheaton and Langley Park each morning, the fact that no laws are likely to be passed against them soon does little to ease the growing frustration and fear.
County police officers cruise the parking lots frequently and often give the laborers warnings for loitering. They do not ask for proof of legal residency, and police officials said their policy is to check legal status only if someone has been arrested and charged with breaking another law. But the men know that this has begun happening in Prince William, and they worry it could start affecting them, too.
They are also concerned about the small but growing exodus of illegal immigrants from Virginia. Some are showing up at the same day-laborer sites, adding to the competition. In Langley Park Plaza one recent mid-morning, two dozen idle men said they had been waiting for work since 6:30. Several said they had considered returning to their homelands but were embarrassed to face their families.
"I walked for 40 days across the desert; I was hungry and thirsty; my feet were swollen. I miss my children, but how can I go back with nothing?" said Angel Cervantes, 33, a Mexican father of three. "I know I am here illegally, but I believe in following the law. I never drink or even get a parking ticket," he said. "If the day comes when they deport me, I want to go home with honor."
Nearby, a white unmarked van circled the parking lot, cruising for a quick household moving job. The driver, a Mexican without legal papers who gave his name as Gerardo, said he had just gotten a police ticket for parking illegally and was relieved that the officer had not asked him for proof of legal residence.
"Look around at this plaza. See how much life we Latinos have created here," Gerardo said. "There's my bank. There's my insurance agent. That's where I buy my groceries. I used to have a good moving business with my truck, but every day it is harder to find workers. They are all scared of being arrested now. I am illegal, too, but I don't hurt anyone. I am helping this community grow. We all are. Just look around!"