By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 23, 2008
Of all the communities in Prince George's County, tiny Mount Rainier seemed a fitting place to pass a broad sanctuary law for illegal immigrants. After all, the ethnically diverse city of 9,000 already prohibits its police force from enforcing federal immigration laws and inquiring about a person's citizenship status.
But when the five-member City Council sat down to consider sanctuary status, dozens of angry speakers from Mount Rainier and beyond crowded into public hearings to oppose the measure. The debate not only split neighbors but drew activists from across the state who are concerned about illegal immigration.
This week, the council tabled the resolution, citing the divisiveness. "I think it's pretty much dead," said council member Jimmy Tarlau, who lobbied for the proposal.
Maryland's nascent movement against illegal immigration, which began with protests over a day-laborer center in Gaithersburg, is moving beyond Montgomery County as advocates reach out more broadly, to African Americans and other groups and to rural counties.
"I have nothing against anyone who wants to come to America, but don't expect us to open our arms if you are not willing to do what it takes to become a citizen," said Natalie McKinney, a newly minted activist who hands out leaflets at her gym in Waldorf, at crowded bus stops and at a farmer's market in La Plata.
McKinney's message is new not only to Charles County, where she heads a fledgling chapter of Help Save Maryland, a group that opposes illegal immigration. It is also new to Maryland's African American community, which until now had been largely silent on the issue or had found common cause with the struggle of Latino immigrants.
In contrast with Virginia, where a fast-growing movement against illegal immigrants has prompted several counties in the past year to call for restricting services, Maryland has appeared more welcoming toward its Latino populace, now estimated at more than 500,000, including tens of thousands of illegal immigrants.
The core of Maryland's small movement against illegal immigration has been in suburban Montgomery, where members began organizing last year to oppose a day-laborer center in Gaithersburg that helps Latino immigrants find jobs regardless of their legal status.
Until recently, the groups were considered a fringe minority in a state with a tradition of liberal politics. Civil rights groups, labor unions and black church leaders across Maryland have embraced the immigrant cause as an echo of their own struggles.
"There are some who want to create a schism between African Americans and Latinos, but we need more black-brown coalitions. In one way or another, we are all immigrants," said the Rev. Jamila Wood Jones, an African Methodist Episcopal pastor in La Plata. "This is a land of opportunity, not a place where we want to make criminals out of people who come to make a better life for their families."
Recently, a group of Maryland lawmakers with family ties to a dozen countries launched a pro-immigrant committee called the New Americans Caucus, which they said was aimed at keeping national anti-immigrant sentiment out of Maryland politics and at fighting legislative proposals that target illegal immigrants.
In recent months, however, the movement against illegal immigration has gained altitude across the state, with groups such as Help Save Maryland recruiting members and forming chapters.
The surge has been driven in part by fears of immigrant flight from Virginia and in part by several controversial issues, such as a state proposal that would have allowed illegal immigrants to obtain special driver's licenses. That plan was ultimately rejected by Gov. Martin O'Malley (D).
"The epicenter is still Montgomery, but we are getting members in many other counties now," said Brad Botwin, a Rockville resident who heads Help Save Maryland and speaks at meetings across the state. "This is not like the Ellis Island time, when my grandparents came. We cannot afford to build schools and clinics and job centers for people who came here illegally."
This message has begun to resonate in unexpected corners of the state. In Carroll County, the largely white farming community of Taneytown recently debated, then rejected, a resolution to keep out illegal immigrants. In Charles County, African American activists such as McKinney are beginning to solicit support from their neighbors.
In Prince George's County, a racially and economically diverse jurisdiction whose Latino population has grown rapidly in some neighborhoods, the issue of job competition from poorly paid illegal immigrants has aroused concern among some African Americans. Until recently, though, there were virtually no organized groups raising the issue.
When Mount Rainier proposed becoming a "sanctuary city," like Takoma Park in Montgomery County, Help Save Maryland joined some residents in lobbying against it.
Such a regulation, Botwin said, does not stop federal authorities from enforcing immigration laws. "It's irresponsible for our elected officials to put in policies like this," he said. "It's unnecessary."
Joe Robbins, a Mount Rainier resident who testified in favor of the law, saw the immigration issue differently. "Isn't it similar to the one that this country was founded on, that of 'Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free'?"
Elsewhere, Green Line riders are likely to encounter Pree Glenn-Grayves, a legal secretary, handing out leaflets at every stop on her commute home from the District. For Glenn-Grayves, the issue hit home the day her husband discovered that many customers of his home remodeling business had switched to firms that hired Latino workers, paid lower wages and were able to make lower bids on renovation jobs.
Angry and frustrated, Glenn-Grayves said she turned to the Internet and discovered the Web site of Help Save Manassas, which led her to Help Save Maryland. Nine months after signing on as a volunteer, she has become its county coordinator.
"You'd be amazed how many African Americans are incensed about this. A lot of them are still in the closet, but I am being flooded with e-mails," she said. "The black and Latino movements have nothing to do with each other. We want to help the civil rights of our citizens, not of the people who invade our country, take our jobs and drag themselves across the border so they can have U.S. citizen babies."
Pro-immigrant groups say the clout of Help Save Maryland and its allies is still minimal. They assert that the great majority of state residents, even if unhappy about problems associated with illegal immigration, are opposed to harsh measures against immigrants. Taneytown's City Council eventually rejected a proposal to make the community a "sanctuary" from illegal immigrants, and the General Assembly has routinely killed proposals to deny services or legal rights to illegal immigrants.
"If groups like Help Save Maryland exist now, we consider that a price of our success in retaining Maryland as a positive place for immigrants," said Kim Propeack, an activist with Casa de Maryland, a state-funded group that runs five day-laborer centers. "Most Marylanders are not comfortable with undocumented immigrants, and they believe we have a broken system. But they want constructive dialogue and solutions."
In trying to enlist public support, new activists such as McKinney and Glenn-Grayves seem to face an uphill battle. Most people accept their leaflets politely, and some express concern. But few seem eager to get involved. Last week, at the farmers market in La Plata, a woman selling vegetables told McKinney that she had mixed feelings.
"I don't want to see people be ostracized if they have been mistreated in their home countries," said Joan Bowling, who has lived in Charles County for 30 years. McKinney pointed out that many immigrants enter the country illegally, some commit crimes and many do not learn English.
"I see what you mean," Bowling said, tucking away the leaflet. "I'm with you on that. They should do it legally."
At the Branch Avenue Metro stop, where Glenn-Grayves often tries to start conversations, an assortment of commuters expressed concern about such issues as job competition from Latino workers and overcrowded rental housing. But they also expressed sympathy for hardworking immigrants trying to survive.
"I disapprove of people living 20 to a house, using public services and not paying taxes. There should be stronger laws," said Norman Brown, 57, who works for a firm that organizes trade shows. "But these immigrants do the jobs a lot of our younger people won't do, and once they settle down with families, it may be too late to send them back. I have strong feelings, but this is not an easy issue."
Staff writer Jackie Spinner contributed to this report.