“I did the full legal process,” Anuchit Washirapunya, who is deaf and cannot speak English, wrote on a notepad as he hunched in his barber’s chair. “The illegal students have no right to work or stay here.”
Until recently, Maryland’s legal and political battle over in-state tuition has been seen as pitting young illegal immigrants against native residents. But in the past few months, a petition drive by opponents of the measure has attracted a small but growing number of legal immigrants, who say that they, too, are being cheated.
The issue of what to do about the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States has roiled Republican presidential debates. In recent years, it has spawned national movements that advocate a range of solutions, including forcing all illegal immigrants to return home and granting them all legal amnesty.
The Dream Act, which was passed by both houses of the Maryland legislature in April, was about to become law when an advocacy group called Help Save Maryland, working with Republican lawmakers, launched an online campaign to try to prevent it from being enacted. The drive garnered more than 100,000 electronic signatures, resulting in the suspension of the law until a statewide public referendum can be held next year.
One Marylander who clicked on the petition was Shakil Hamid, 44, an accountant in Gaithersburg who emigrated legally from Bangladesh in 1977. He is an enthusiastic member of Help Save Maryland, which opposes allowing illegal immigrants to work, drive or receive a variety of public benefits.
“These people are taking seats in college away from our kids,” Hamid said. “Why should we reward their dishonest behavior?”
The issue upset him when he was a student at the University of Maryland in the 1980s, he said: “I have been looking for 25 years for someone to be on my side.”
Such views are a minority among Maryland’s immigrant population, which is predominantly Hispanic and of Central American origin. Many such families include both legal and illegal immigrants, depending on when and how they arrived and whether they found a way to apply for residency. Often, illegal immigrants arrived as children and grew up in the state. Their communities tend to judge them on grounds other than legal status and wish them success.
Jesus Alberto Martinez, 55, is an ophthalmologist and U.S. Navy veteran in Rockville who came from Colombia as a teenager, overstayed his tourist visa and eventually became a U.S. citizen. He is an impassioned supporter of the Maryland Dream Act and a plaintiff in a lawsuit, filed by immigrant advocacy groups including Casa de Maryland, challenging the petition drive that halted the law’s enactment about four months ago.