SILVER SPRING – CASA of Maryland lobbyist Natali Fani was on the verge of tears the night of April 12 — sine die — the last day of the General Assembly session.
Moments earlier, a committee killed a bill to give illegal immigrant students in-state tuition to public colleges and universities.
The legislative loss was a huge setback for the Hispanic and immigrant community and it directly struck Fani, a Venezuelan immigrant and lobbyist for the Hispanic advocacy organization.
“The first thing that came to my mind when it died was all the kids that lobbied the institution,” she said. “Just to tell them what happened was going to be a huge disappointment.”
But legislators, advocates and community leaders say Fani’s work pushing the Hispanic and immigration agenda in Annapolis has been anything but a disappointment.
Despite setbacks, the 23-year-old Fani had a very successful legislative session, helping to kill bills that would have required some local and state law enforcement agencies to detain illegal immigrants and denied the group driver’s licenses and use of consular identification cards.
And although her push for immigrant and Hispanic rights in Maryland was appreciated by her community, it was another kind of push that thrust Fani, 23, into Annapolis lore.
It was she who, on March 18, had a heated encounter with Republican Baltimore County Delegates Richard K. Impallaria and Patrick L. McDonough outside a House committee room.
They said the lobbyist called them xenophobic, racist and anti-immigrant.
“We respect their right to promote their agenda, but I have never seen … these kinds of name calling and tactics,” McDonough said.
During the confrontation, Impallaria offended Fani by demanding to know if she was an illegal immigrant, she said.
Then, a union leader collaborating with CASA tried to defend her.
McDonough shoved the intervener aside and the rest — police response, reprimands from leadership, parody in annual legislative follies, Fani’s quarter-hour of fame — is history.
But Fani’s job is Annapolis is nowhere near over: The cause is too great, she said.
In her defense, Fani — who came to the country in 1997 and is a legal resident in the process of getting her citizenship — said the group fighting the anti-immigrant measures only used the strong words to describe the bills, never their sponsors.
The scuffle, she said, was the result Impallaria and McDonough’s frustration over the death of their bills targeting illegal aliens.
“I can understand their passion,” Fani said. “They will never change, I’ll never change.”
The unprovoked attack shows the anger some have against Fani and her colleagues’ efforts, said Ricardo Flores, president of the Maryland Latino Coalition for Justice, another Hispanic advocacy group in step with CASA’s lobbying campaign.
A strong connection to issues she champions makes Fani an effective leader, lobbyist and representative of the growing Hispanic and immigrant community in Maryland, said Delegate Ana Sol Gutierrez, D-Montgomery, who also denounced the incident as an ugly display of aggression.
“She is one of the first young people to come and be a lobbyist,” she said. “…She has been able to do a role that’s really never been done before and that’s to personify the actual community that we serve.”
Fani is also involved in national immigration advocacy issues.
She educates local and federal leaders about the Hispanic agenda, while organizing and training people how to lobby legislators.
This year, she orchestrated Noche de Accion Latina (Latino Action Night) in Annapolis, which drew 800 people in February.
As an advocate and lobbyist, Fani has had great success creating strength in numbers, without the resources of large lobbying firms, Gutierrez said.
“We mobilized 800 people,” said Kim Propeack, CASA lobbyist and Fani’s supervisor. “Those folks never went to Annapolis before.”
But as a representative for a low-income, low-profile group, getting a foot in the office doors of General Assembly powerbrokers is often the most difficult task.
Advocating for immigrants and low-income Hispanics is not the best paying or most well-received job, Fani said, but she has found that politicians have a real interest in learning about Hispanics, immigration and poor communities in Maryland.
“They (legislators) know that now it’s important and tomorrow it’s going to be crucial” to learn about Hispanics, Fani said.
A 2003 graduate of Goucher College in Baltimore, Fani said she wants to keep lobbying well into the future.
Flores said it’s appropriate that a community still in its infancy in terms of political presence depends on a young lobbyist to help spread the message.
“I think that speaks to the relative youth of the community as a whole and our relative status as beginners in the ‘political process,'” he said. “But it also speaks to a consciousness among leaders in the community that people like her are the future and that the community needs to speak for itself.”
The Northwestern High School (Adelphi, Md.) alumna’s biggest contribution, however, may be spurring political engagement in a group not known for it: Latino youths.
She’s able to communicate with that segment of the community because of her age, experience and enthusiasm, colleagues say.
“Having been an immigrant herself and continuing to experience life as an immigrant, she is very tied to the community’s desires, needs and I think the community’s aspirations,” Flores said. “And so, she is both an advocate but she is a community member herself. That, I think, is very important and obviously distinguishes people who don’t have that personal connection.” -30- CNS-4