Hundreds of Latino residents rallied at the State House on Monday to voice support for a legislative agenda that includes access to driver's licenses and in-state college tuition for all immigrants. The demonstration, the largest by Latinos in state history, was organized by the Maryland Latino Coalition for Justice. Coalition President Ricardo A. Flores answered questions from staff writer Nurith C. Aizenman about the group's history and goals.

Q When and why was the Maryland Latino Coalition for Justice formed?

A The MLCFJ began in 1999, when two Maryland legal service groups, Public Justice Center and CASA of Maryland, published a report on the legal needs of Latinos in Maryland. The report galvanized a vast array of community, legal and social service providers to band together to pursue legislative initiatives. Last year, we successfully lobbied for a state law that requires Maryland state agencies to provide interpreters.

Why is your agenda this year focused on driver's licenses and in-state college tuition?

The current list of documents the Motor Vehicle Administration requires to prove identity are mostly ones that only people born here would have, effectively excluding many immigrants, both documented and undocumented. Our bill would expand the list to include documents from other countries that are officially recognized by the U.S. Department of State. Regarding the in-state initiative, students without permanent residency are currently forced to pay out-of-state tuition at Maryland colleges and universities, which is two to three times higher. We want in-state tuition to be based on whether a student has graduated from a Maryland high school, not whether they are a permanent resident.

Why is this legislation needed?

Immigrants want a license for the same reason anyone else does: to work; to buy groceries, et cetera. Public transportation often takes too long or doesn't run where people need to go. With respect to in-state tuition, we're talking about students who have lived here with their families for five to 15 years. These kids want to become nurses, computer technicians, teachers -- professionals that are needed in Maryland. And current immigration law would likely provide them with the visas they need to work here legally.

What is your response to some of the arguments that have prompted lawmakers in other states to reject these proposals: that granting people who are here illegally such privileges amounts to tacitly condoning their presence and encourages even more illegal immigration? Or that issuing a license to illegal immigrants undermines national security because this document is used for many activities beyond driving, including boarding planes and opening bank accounts?

Both our initiatives are about creating fairness for people already here. Current laws allow someone from another state to move to Maryland and get in-state tuition while immigrants who have been here 10 years can't. We're talking about persons who are otherwise able to drive responsibly, or otherwise willing to educate and better themselves. It is indisputable that immigrants have built and invested in this great state. A recent study found that Maryland ranks sixth in the nation for highest share of labor force growth due to immigrants in the last decade, and we pay significant sales and income taxes. We think national security is increased, not decreased, by acknowledging that a license is just a license. The MVA is simply not equipped or trained to determine whether persons are here legally, much less whether someone intends to do us harm.

RICARDO A. FLORES