Illegal immigration a federal issue felt locally

Sympathy mixed with practical concerns

Friday, Oct. 14, 2005

Although immigration is a federal issue, its immediate effects are often felt locally as immigrants — both legal and illegal — come to Montgomery County seeking work, education and shelter.

Last week, The Gazette featured the story of Marvin, an 18-year-old illegal immigrant living in Wheaton. Marvin attends school, where he is learning English, and works long hours at more than one job to send money home every month to his mother in Honduras. He plans to stay in the United States for a few years, then return to his country.

Marvin’s story generated responses from readers both supporting and condemning his efforts. Residents were outspoken on both sides of the issue in regards to providing for residents who have come to America illegally.

‘‘Although Marvin is in the country illegally, he has picked up on something that a lot of us who were born here haven’t — America is a great place,” wrote Montgomery Village resident Brian Lombard in a letter to the editor. ‘‘After reading the extremes that this boy went through to get here, it only reminded me of the freedom that so many people take for granted. Anyone quick to burn a flag should walk a mile in Marvin’s shoes.”

But others were less supportive.

‘‘Immigration is a great thing, especially if it is done legally, with the proper government paperwork and security checks. But don’t deceive our citizens — we are under no moral or legal obligation to tolerate or accept illegal immigrants like Marvin and thousands like him in Montgomery County,” wrote Rockville resident Brad Botwin in a letter to the editor.

Debate local, federal roles

There are many like Marvin in Montgomery County and in the state. The estimated number of illegal immigrants in Maryland was 56,000 in January 2000, according to data from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Between 1995 and March 2000, 60,512 foreign-born residents, legal and illegal, came to Montgomery County, according to U.S. CIS data.

The Department of Justice has the responsibility of enforcing immigration laws within U.S. borders. The U.S. Department of Labor is charged with ensuring that competition from immigrants does not take jobs from or reduce wages for U.S. workers. But many argue that local governments also have a responsibility to help enforce the federal laws.

The federal system is overwhelmed, said Dan Stein, a Rockville resident and president of Washington, D.C.-based Federation for American Immigration Reform. ‘‘The issue is the position of local government.”

It’s important, he said, Montgomery County ensures that its policy is consistent with federal law. That’s because when undocumented workers come to the area, it reduces labor costs for employers and makes it harder for other residents to get jobs.

That issue was raised recently in the process of creating a day laborer center in Gaithersburg that was to be run by nonprofit immigrant advocacy group Casa of Maryland. The center has spurred discussions about the city’s role in helping pay for the center, which would serve an undetermined number of illegal immigrants in addition to those here with work permits, and the possible legal liabilities.

Additionally, Stein said, illegal immigration creates a burden for taxpayers as children attend county schools and immigrants take advantage of services such as Medicare and other taxpayer-funded programs.

‘‘I truly believe it is not in the true interest of this county, nor the surrounding communities, to allow this process to occur,” Stein said.

Gaithersburg resident Susan Payne agreed, adding she does not understand why the county condones the process.

‘‘When [immigrants] enter the country illegally, the first thing they do is commit a criminal act,” she said. ‘‘... Montgomery County is now a place that is embracing lawlessness.”

Taxpayers subsidize housing and pay for the education of people who come here, Payne said, and those who come here illegally contribute to the county’s dense population, lack of affordable housing and sometimes overcrowded schools.

‘‘Nobody in the county really knows how much money is being spent on illegal aliens,” Payne said.

In the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks and the 2002 sniper siege, Payne said, not knowing who lives in the county could jeopardize the safety of its residents. ‘‘I don’t know who it is that’s on my street. I don’t know who’s in these schools.”

Payne does not want to stop immigration. She just thinks it needs to be done legally. She said she has friends from Romania who waited for five years to come to the United States.

‘‘I have nothing against people who want to better their lives,” she said. ‘‘I just think you need to do it the right way.”

Already here

But many immigrants do not. That does not mean they should not be provided for, some officials say.

‘‘Our role as a county is to assist the people who are living here,” said Montgomery County Council President Thomas E. Perez (D-Dist. 5) of Takoma Park, who added that immigration is an issue for the federal government.

The immigration system is broken at the federal level, and needs bills, such as the one proposed by U.S. Sen. John S. McCain (R-Ariz.), Perez said.

The Secure America and Orderly Immigration Act, endorsed by McCain and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), introduced last year, would allow the United States to accept at least 400,000 workers on three-year visas each year. It also would require illegal aliens already in the United States to register, pay a $2,000 fine, clear a criminal background check and pass an English-as-a-second-language exam. If they did that and held a job, after six years they could apply for citizenship. The legislation also would increase border security and raise fines for employers who hire illegal immigrants.

‘‘Montgomery County isn’t going to be the vehicle to fix a federal law,” Perez said.

He said it is important to understand that illegal immigrants are not a drain on the system, and are paying into the Social Security system when they do get jobs, often jobs that other people are not willing to take. County-supported endeavors such as the matricular consular identification card are necessary for people to be able to prove who they are and obtain bank accounts and rent apartments.

Stein worries that things like the consular card may entice more people to come to Montgomery illegal. And it’s done at the expense of the taxpayer and the safety of the community, he said.

‘‘What’s amazing is that we’ve had the sniper, we’ve had the terrorists, and we haven’t cracked down on this,” Stein said.