WASHINGTON – Maryland’s raging immigration debate mirrors the national one, as the U.S. Senate nears a vote on immigration reform by the end of the week.
The future of an estimated 250,000 illegal immigrants in Maryland could hinge on what decision, if any, Congress is able to make. That decision becomes increasingly important as the Washington region’s minority population is expected to become the majority in the next four to eight years.
While the House has proposed building a 700-mile border fence and adding more border guards, the Senate has taken a less harsh approach, although no bill has emerged as dominant.
The Senate Judiciary Committee’s bill would allow the 11 million to 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States to stay in the country while seeking citizenship, but the members are divided over that idea, one favored by President Bush. The division could prevent passage by next week’s Easter recess.
Maryland Sen. Barbara Mikulski is trying to preserve the state’s interest in the guest worker program, introducing an amendment extending her existing law to allow guest workers to enter the country each season to fill seasonal jobs like crab picking. Maryland’s crabbing industry has said it would be crippled without the hundreds of Mexican workers that come here each spring.
The issue has divided the nation as well, with hundreds of thousands recently turning out for rallies across the nation.
A recent Pew Hispanic Center poll showed 52 percent of Americans think immigrants are a burden because they take jobs and housing, up from 38 percent in 2000, while 42 percent think immigrants strengthen the United States with their hard work and talents.
More than half of Americans, 53 percent, said illegal immigrants should be required to go home, while 40 percent said they should be allowed to stay. Two-thirds of Americans said immigrants take jobs that Americans don’t want.
Maryland Delegate Herb McMillan, R-Anne Arundel, strongly opposes giving amnesty to illegal immigrants, saying it sets a bad example and a dangerous precedent.
“The first thing they do when the come to America is break the law,” he said. “I think that most people in the USA recognize we are a nation of immigrants, but we are also a nation of laws.”
A guest worker program, he said, permits immigrants to disdain American culture.
“Now, if you come here as a guest worker, you’re coming here to work for five years and you’re going home.” he said. “Why bother learning English, why bother learning our customs and traditions?”
McMillan disputes the idea that Americans don’t want to do the jobs that illegal immigrants take, saying it has caused the working and middle classes to be increasingly less able to support their families.
“Americans can’t afford to do the job any more because they’ve watered down the wage structure,” he said.
Securing the borders and penalizing employers hiring illegals is the only way to stop the bleeding, McMillan said.
“They won’t be able to work and they won’t get benefits and they will go home,” he said. “We’re offering them a reason to stay.”
Stephen Schreiman, director of the anti-illegal immigration group Maryland Minutemen, said the country would be better off without illegal immigrants.
He said the rampant influx of them has contributed to local neighborhoods being destabilized, crime increases, the depletion of resources and an overcrowding of the housing market.
Schreiman does not oppose a guest worker program, but doesn’t think everyone who works in the country temporarily should be eligible for citizenship. And everyone who wishes to apply to be a guest worker should have to do so from a point outside the United States.
With a fence along the border and the use of the National Guard and Army, he said we can all but eliminate unwanted border crossers.
“It’s a matter of whether Congress has the will,” Schreiman said.
On the other side of Maryland’s immigration debate are those who see good in immigration.
Delegate Ana Sol Gutierrez, D-Montgomery, said all immigrants working in the United States should be given the opportunity to become citizens and policies should be changed to allow more immigrants into the country legally.
“The U.S. economy needs a labor force that is bigger,” Gutierrez said. “Demand is higher than supply. For our economy to function, we need more workers.”
We are almost at full employment in the United States, and the number of workers permitted to come in should be dictated by demand, she said.
Gustavo Torres, executive director of the immigration advocacy group CASA of Maryland, favors increasing border security, but says the United States should not build a fence along the border or criminalize aiding illegal immigrants.
The U.S. needs a guest worker program, he said, and agrees with Gutierrez that all the illegal immigrants in the country should be given the opportunity to become citizens.
“I don’t see how we are going to deport 11 million undocumented workers,” Torres said. “It shouldn’t and couldn’t be done. It will be a disaster for our economy.”
– 30 – CNS-4-4-06