Gustavo Torres is executive director of Casa de Maryland. His affiliation with the organization was incorrect in last week's Prince George's Extra. (Published 2/6/03)

Prince George's State's Attorney Glenn F. Ivey won enthusiastic applause from more than 100 members of the Latino community in Langley Park when he pledged Saturday to support legislation that would allow immigrants to obtain Maryland driver's licenses regardless of their immigration status.

Ivey, who took office this month, drew another round of applause when he said he would prosecute unscrupulous employers who pick up day laborers for construction, maintenance and other jobs, then refuse to pay them for their work.

Ivey appeared at the Langley Park Community Center at a public forum sponsored by the Maryland Latino Coalition for Justice and Ivey's office.

County Executive Jack B. Johnson, the former state's attorney, who at times has had strained relations with the Latino community, also appeared at the forum. He elicited applause when he announced that he supports the concept of legislation that would allow undocumented immigrants to obtain drivers' licenses.

The bill, sponsored by Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr. (D-Prince George's), is to be introduced next week. Ivey said he would testify on behalf of the legislation in Annapolis.

"This meeting illustrated the enthusiasm of Prince George's leaders and the county's Latino community to create equitable and proactive solutions to the problems plaguing us. Both Jack Johnson and Glenn Ivey have demonstrated tremendous leadership by supporting driver's licenses for all Maryland residents," said Gustavo Torres, a board member of the Maryland Latino Coalition for Justice and former executive director of Casa de Maryland, a Silver Spring-based organization that advocates for immigrants.

In introductory remarks that lasted less than a minute, Ivey (through a translator) told the crowd -- which consisted primarily of Latino day laborers and blue-collar workers from the Langley Park and Hyattsville neighborhoods -- that he wanted to work with them to combat crime and to hear their concerns.

"I want to hear from you," Ivey said, before handing out dozens of business cards and state's attorney's literature in Spanish and English. Deputy State's Attorney Robert L. Dean, who accompanied Ivey, added (through the translator), "Our doors are open, our ears are open, our hearts are open."

For about an hour, more than a dozen men and women took turns speaking at a microphone. Most of them spoke of the need for the driver's license legislation.

One woman said that because she does not have a driver's license, she sometimes has to pay as much as $30 to get a ride to her job. (The woman did not identify herself or say what kind of work she does).

Under current Maryland law, undocumented immigrants and even some legal immigrants are not allowed to obtain a driver's license.

Proponents of Vallario's bill said allowing immigrants to obtain driver's licenses would enhance public safety. People who are licensed would have to pass driver's exams, would be more likely to carry car insurance and would be less likely to flee from an accident, proponents have said.

In addition, allowing all immigrants to obtain driver's licenses would make it easier for law enforcement to keep track of immigrants if the need arises, according to proponents of the bill.

"This is win-win [legislation] that solves the barriers facing the immigrant community and improves public safety for all Marylanders," Torres said.

Ivey said he agreed that allowing immigrants to obtain driver's licenses would be a useful tool for law enforcement.

Ivey's meeting with the Latino community is part of what Ivey has said will be an effort to reach out to immigrant communities in Prince George's, where some residents are reluctant to come forward even when they are victims of crime because of fears of authorities and worries about their immigration status.

When Johnson was state's attorney, his handling of a case involving the death of Gilberto Hernandez, a Salvadoran immigrant, strained relations between some members of the Latino community and the state's attorney's office.

In September 1998, Hernandez, 40, was killed when he was attacked by a group of black teenagers in Laurel. Hernandez had been knocked to the ground and suffered a fractured skull.

Laurel police arrested seven teenagers and charged them with killing Hernandez as part of a botched robbery. Johnson obtained grand jury indictments against three of the teenagers and dropped charges against the other four.

Johnson rejected the findings of the Laurel Police Department's investigation that the attack began as a robbery and initially refused to interview two of Hernandez's brothers, who witnessed parts of the attack. Under Maryland law, someone who participates in a robbery that results in a death could be convicted of first-degree felony murder.

Ultimately, two of the three teenagers were convicted of lesser charges: One was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and two counts of second-degree assault, another of three counts of second-degree assault. The third teenager was acquitted of all charges.

Paulina Gonzales describes problems her son has had with police as Latino activist Gustavo Torres listens. State's Attorney Glenn Ivey says he will support a bill permitting driver's licenses for immigrants.