WASHINGTON – Brad Botwin has been called an extremist and even a Nazi.
Others say he is an asset to the discourse on illegal immigration in the state, and Botwin himself maintains he is merely a concerned citizen asking questions about how the government spends his taxes.
In just two and a half years, Help Save Maryland, the anti-illegal immigrant group Botwin founded, has grown from a small protest movement in Rockville to a statewide organization with volunteer coordinators in almost every county. The organization protests at day labor centers, attends public meetings, publishes a blog and sends out regular newsletters. Botwin said Help Save Maryland counts roughly 2,000 members, and organizes its protests and appearances mostly by e-mail.
Illegal immigration is likely to become the subject of contentious national debate in coming months, as Congress is expected to take up immigration reform after finishing the current health care reform effort. Representatives from both parties have said reform must address illegal immigration and make sure visa quotas align with employer needs.
But Botwin said his group is ready to fight reform: “Right now our position is: the system isn’t broken.”
Help Save Maryland was founded in response to the opening of a day labor center in Gaithersburg in 2007. Botwin said Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett built the center contrary to popular opposition.
“He just took it upon himself to plop it on county land without any public hearings,” Botwin said. “This was an egregious act on his part and that just prompted me to start this group.”
Patrick Lacefield, a spokesman for Leggett, said: “It’s a free country and we understand that they think what they think, but basically our feeling is that in Montgomery County, we value our diversity, we value our immigrants.”
Help Save Maryland garnered national attention this spring, when Alabama-based non-profit The Southern Poverty Law Center listed it among ‘nativist extremist groups,’ a category that stops short of the label ‘hate group,’ which the center awards to overtly racist organizations.
A nativist extremist group, Southern Poverty Law Center spokeswoman Heidi Beirich said, is usually an “aggressive anti-immigration group.”
“They’re not necessarily groups going out and using slurs,” Beirich said. “But these are organizations that don’t debate policy — they don’t lobby their legislators or have what we would call a civil and democratic debate. They’re people that get in the face of immigrants and confront people rather than legislators.”
Botwin, who is Jewish, said he views the listing as an “anti-Semitic act against me.”
“We’re not radicals. We are all tax-paying, working American citizens, all walks of life, every ethnic group, every nationality, we’ve got them,” Botwin said. “We are just questioning what our elected officials are doing with our money on this issue.”
One of Help Save Maryland’s tax-paying members is Pree Glenn-Graves, a coordinator for Prince George’s County. Glenn-Graves says she joined Help Save Maryland after her husband lost his home improvement business. She said the business failed because her husband was unable to compete with cheaper rates offered by businesses using illegal labor.
“If he was willing to do a job for $4,000, illegal immigrants would do it for $1,500.”
Glenn-Graves said she seeks to raise awareness of the effects of illegal immigration on Prince George’s County’s black community.
“None of our children are hired by McDonald’s or KFC because they can pay illegals below the minimum wage,” Glenn-Graves said. “Even though we’re the ones paying taxes, our children aren’t the ones getting jobs.”
KFC spokeswoman Laurie Schalow responded, saying, “KFC’s policy is to comply with all state and federal employment laws, including only hiring individuals who can verify their legal status and right to work in the United States.”
McDonald’s spokeswoman Danya Proud said: “As an employer, we do not knowingly hire or employ undocumented or unauthorized workers. McDonald?s USA has strict policies in place regarding hiring and employment practices — this includes, abiding by all applicable local, state and federal employment laws.”
Among Help Save Maryland’s most active members is Steve Berryman, a coordinator for Frederick County. Berryman writes the group’s blog and is a regular contributor to other regional blogs. He describes himself as Libertarian-leaning and a member of the “NRA Grassroots movement.”
Berryman said Brad Botwin asked him to become involved in the group after he had read some of his writing.
Berryman was happy to join Help Save Maryland because “my views coincide with (Botwin’s) very closely.”
The Help Save Maryland coordinators, Berryman said, “act as a communication nexus. We will pass along information about protests or speaking opportunities on e-mail chains, which are sometimes different by region.”
Frederick County Sheriff Charles Jenkins has spoken at several events organized by Help Save Maryland. The group, Jenkins said, supports his participation in 287(g), a government program allowing local police to enforce federal immigration laws. Frederick County is the only participating jurisdiction in Maryland.
“Steve (Berryman) has been supportive by calling in to talk radio shows, making public comments, writing letters to the editor, things like that,” Jenkins said.
Help Save Maryland also cooperates with People for Change in Prince George’s County, a predominantly African-American organization that lobbies for government accountability. The group describes itself as non-partisan, but it has expressed strongly conservative positions on issues such as immigration and gay marriage.
“The black community is really picking up on the illegal immigration issue,” Botwin said. “When I told some of the members of People for Change that Prince George’s Community College was running a training program for illegal alien day laborers, training them to be construction workers, the report back from the crowd was: ‘We don’t see very many black construction workers anymore.'”
Deirda Hill, director of PGCC’s marketing department, said the college checks immigration status for all students who take classes for credit. If a potential student does not seek credit, the college asks only for a local address.
Help Save Manassas, another Help Save Maryland affiliate, was an inspiration for his own group, although the two rarely coordinate their protests, Botwin said.
Help Save Manassas founder Greg Letiecq is known for the frequently inflammatory statements he makes on his blog, Black Velvet Bruce Li. In a recent blog post, Letiecq referred to President Obama as “Dear Leader,” a title used by North Koreans for that country’s chief, Kim Jong-Il.
Help Save Maryland’s ire is mostly directed at immigrant advocacy groups such as CASA de Maryland and Identity Inc., and by extension liberal Democratic politicians who support them.
Still, Candace Kattar, Identity Inc.’s executive director, said she has found members of Help Save Maryland to be courteous at public meetings they have attended.
“I think they have a very singular issue, which is to get rid of undocumented people,” Kattar said. “So if there are discussions about any issue, the question is always whether or not the individual is undocumented.”
Others have reacted more strongly to the group’s often confrontational rhetoric.
“The general perspective of the group seems very hostile,” said Bruce Adams, director of the Office of Community Partnerships in Montgomery County. “The county executive is dedicated to building the nation’s most multicultural community, and so the work of this group really undermines our ability to do that.”
Maryland Delegate Victor Ramirez, D-Prince George’s, said he calls the group “Help Divide Maryland.”
“They’re spreading hate and disruption,” Ramirez said. “Until they become more reasonable and stop preaching division and hate, I don’t see how they’re adding anything to the conversation or the solution.”
Delegate Ben Barnes, D-Prince George’s, has written two letters opposing Help Save Maryland. In the most recent, published Oct. 8, Barnes wrote: “This type of divisive and offensive rhetoric has no place in our rich diverse community and has been used by the right wing for far too long.”
On the other side of the political spectrum, many conservative delegates support the group.
Delegate Susan Krebs, R-Carroll, said: “Their contribution has been to try to get the facts out about the impact of illegal immigration on schools, services, budgets and health care. Those discussions need to occur.”
“They’ve testified in favor of a number of my bills, and they’re always well-prepared,” said Delegate Patrick McDonough, R-Baltimore County, who has introduced several pieces of legislation to limit services to illegal immigrants. “They’re a great asset, and I wish there were a lot more of them all around the state.”
Buoyed by conservative support and undaunted by criticism, Botwin says his group is gearing up for the immigration reform debate.
“There’s an old saying from Mahatma Gandhi — first they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win,” Botwin said. “Now they’re fighting us.”