By Candia Dames
WASHINGTON – Maryland immigrant advocacy groups Wednesday praised House approval of a bill that would let illegal immigrants buy time to legalize their status, hitting them with a $1,000 fine instead of deporting them.
“The biggest benefit is that it keeps families together,” said Ana Sol Gutierrez, a former Montgomery County school board member who has worked with undocumented day laborers in the state. “Nothing breaks families a part more than bad immigration laws.”
But opponents called the measure, which passed by a one-vote margin Tuesday, a “get-out-of-jail-free card.” The Senate is expected to take up the measure next week, in time for President Bush’s meeting with Mexican President Vicente Fox.
The bill passed Tuesday would revive the Section 245(i) program, which let illegal aliens who qualified for residency status pay a $1,000 penalty and remain in the United States. Without the provision, illegal immigrants could be deported and banned from the country for up to 10 years, depending on how long they overstayed their visas.
An estimated 44,000 illegal immigrants lived in Maryland in 1996, the last year for which the Immigration and Naturalization Service has estimates. At that time, Maryland had the 12th-largest illegal immigrant population in the country.
The INS said there were about 5 million undocumented aliens nationally in 1996, but the Census estimates that the country’s illegal alien population had grown to at least 7 million by 2000.
And the numbers of immigrants not playing by the rules could be increasing in Maryland as well.
The INS deported 225 immigrants in Maryland between October and January, a 20 percent increase over the same period a year earlier. In all of fiscal 2001, the INS deported 511 illegal immigrants from the state.
The INS recently reported that it admitted 17,705 immigrants in fiscal 2000 who said they intended to live in Maryland. Of those immigrants, Salvadorans accounted for 1,480, Indians for 1,228, and Chinese for 1,102.
“What Maryland needs to do is to stabilize its population, not to have Congress invite a whole lot more illegal aliens in,” said Roy Beck, executive director of Numbers USA.com, which advocates immigration reduction.
Even though the measure passed the House, Beck said it was still a tremendous victory because a large number of Republicans “stood up against their president.” Among Maryland’s congressional delegation, only Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, R-Frederick, voted against the bill.
Beck said a vote for the bill was a vote against national security and an incentive for illegal immigrants to continue to break the law.
“This is not a smart thing to do after Sept. 11,” he said.
But supporters challenged the notion that the bill opens the floodgates to illegal immigration. Steve Smitson, director of legal services at the immigration advocacy group CASA de Maryland, said the measure “takes a step toward true equality for all persons.”
Patricia Hatch, program manager at the Maryland Office for New Americans, said she doubted that the number of illegal immigrants in the state would balloon as a result of the vote, because illegal immigrants will only benefit if they qualify for residency. And that could take many years, she said.
Illegal immigrants who already live in the United States with their families and are “playing by the rules” will be the chief beneficiaries of the 245(i) extension, said Greg Crist, press secretary for House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas.
But an official with the Federation of American Immigration Reform said Tuesday’s vote will just make it harder to rid states of immigrants breaking the law. James M. Staudenraus said he found it shocking that Congress would take the responsibility of conducting background checks away from State Department offices around the world and give it to an already administratively overburdened INS.
“Our whole legal immigration system has been compromised by illegal immigration and this simply facilitates that,” said Mark Krikorian, the executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies.
But immigration advocates maintain that immigrant populations — even illegal ones — provide substantial benefits to American societies.
Gutierrez said the provision would mostly impact undocumented immigrants who have been living in the country for years, contributing to America’s economic development.
“They are the people who go to church, who sit next to you at PTA meetings,” she said. “These are the people who are willing to do the jobs that nobody else wants to do.”