Jonathan N. Crawford - CalvertNews.info Staff Reporter
ANNAPOLIS - With less than two weeks left in the General Assembly session, legislators advocating immigrant issues have been generally successful in both passing bills they favor and defeating bills they oppose.
Bills that would make English the state's official language and prohibit illegal immigrants from getting driver's licenses have been killed. A bill allowing undocumented immigrants to get in-state tuition seems likely to pass and has the support of the governor.
"So far we're winning and we'll keep on winning," said immigrant advocate Kimberley Propeack, director of immigrant rights group CASA de Maryland.
By contrast, opponents of legislation that would favor illegal immigrants said they were unhappy with the results of this year's legislative session. Richard K. Impallaria, R-Baltimore County, said it was a "terrible" year in terms of the amount of legislation that was passed that would benefit illegal immigrants.
"If it's winners and losers, the winners are the illegals and the losers are the tax-paying citizens."
Impallaria said that he was against the in-state tuition bill because it "rewards" people who are here illegally and could put a strain on the public school system.
But immigrant advocate Victor R. Ramirez, D-Prince George's, sponsor of the tuition bill, said "we're doing the right thing."
"Either you want to treat people like human beings, or you treat them like something else," Ramirez said.
Much of the optimism among immigrant advocates is no doubt due to the change in atmosphere in the State House that resulted when Gov. Martin O'Malley, a liberal Democrat, defeated Robert L. Ehrlich, a conservative Republican, last fall.
Ehrlich famously referred to multiculturalism "bunk" and "crap" on a radio talk show, and vetoed a bill in 2003 that would give in-state tuition rates to some illegal immigrants. A similar bill, which will be heard by a Senate committee on Wednesday, has been supported by O'Malley.
Ehrlich's friend and close ally on the powerful Board of Public Works, then-Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, frequently complained about immigrants' lack of English proficiency, declaring, "you're going to be in this country, speak English."
He has been replaced as comptroller by a liberal from Montgomery County, Peter Franchot.
Delegate Ana Sol Gutierrez, D-Montgomery, an immigrant rights supporter, said the new governor favors a more inclusive environment.
"We're both progressives. He shares a lot of my values and he wants to make life better for those that can't speak for themselves," she said of O'Malley.
Gutierrez said the differences on immigrant issues between the O'Malley administration and the former Ehrlich administration are "night and day."
"I never met with Ehrlich, and I only met the lieutenant governor once. There really was no dialogue or conversation ever. It was not a productive environment," she said.
Gutierrez and other immigrant advocates said they were happy to see several bills die that they said would have made life harder for illegal immigrants.
One of these was a bill that would designate the English language as the official language of the state of Maryland. Another would have required driver's license applicants to prove legal presence and others would have made it harder for illegal immigrants to find work in the state or receive worker's compensation.
Gutierrez also cited as a victory the defeat of a bill that would have strengthened laws against loitering. Gutierrez said she saw this as an indirect attack on day laborers who are known to wait around store fronts looking for work.
But one of the challenges that advocates for immigrants still face, according to Gutierrez, is the federal Real ID Act which would require states to impose strict standards on the issuance of driver's licenses and would require applicants to prove legal presence. Under current state law, Maryland's Motor Vehicle Administration is prohibited from requiring proof of citizenship.
Gutierrez said she plans to meet with the governor and the transportation secretary, John D. Porcari, to push for a delay in the implementation of the regulations set by the Real ID Act.
Gutierrez said that not only has this legislative session seen fewer bills she considers anti-immigrant, but she said the House of Delegates added another foreign-born legislator who could represent the interest of other immigrants.
"The best thing that's happened is that another foreign born delegate (Delegate Joseline A. Pena-Melnyk) was elected ... who helps to bring another voice and another perspective that has been missing at the state level," she said.
Pena-Melnyk was born in the Dominican Republic while Gutierrez and Ramirez were born in El Salvador. "People realize that we should do our part to help assimilate these people to become better Americans," said Ramirez.