By ALIA MALIK, Capital News Service
WASHINGTON - Advocates for illegal immigrants are optimistic that immigration law will favor them now that a Democrat is in the governor's office with a compatible General Assembly.
Although incoming Gov. Martin O'Malley's legislative agenda is still in development, many of the items on his oft-mentioned 10-point plan for government, like making health care and education more affordable, apply to immigrants no matter their legal status, said spokesman Rick Abbruzzese.
Outgoing Gov. Robert Ehrlich was no friend to immigrants, their advocates said.
Ehrlich vetoed a 2003 bill to give in-state tuition to illegal immigrants who graduated from Maryland high schools and who were applying for legalization. Last year, he cut the state health care budget to leave thousands of legal immigrant children and pregnant women without benefits.
And, in one of his last acts as governor, Ehrlich has indicated that he will tighten regulations to make it harder for illegal immigrants to get driver's licenses, said Sen. Paul Pinsky, D-Prince George's, who heads the committee that reviews such regulations.
With a changing of the guard, goals like increasing funding for adult education and ensuring that immigrants can get health care, in-state college tuition and driver's licenses regardless of legal status could be advanced, said Kim Propeack, community organizing director of immigrant-rights group CASA de Maryland.
"It would be difficult to be less receptive than Governor Ehrlich was," she said.
Like-minded legislators agreed that O'Malley would be more supportive of their cause.
"We have the same Democratic principles that we're going to be looking out for the working class and the poor," said Delegate Ana Sol Gutierrez, D-Montgomery, a vocal advocate for immigrants both legal and illegal. "I just think that we're in a much more favorable climate."
The transition team O'Malley named last month includes CASA's Executive Director Gustavo Torres. Torres heads O'Malley's work group on housing and community development, and was chosen partly to be a voice for the legal and illegal immigrant community in Maryland, Abbruzzese said.
That isn't welcome news to immigration hard-liners like Stephen Schreiman, Maryland director of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, which assists law enforcement in apprehending illegal aliens and smugglers.
"It's really clear that Martin O'Malley doesn't give a damn about the law," Schreiman said. "Let's face it, I mean, he's got Gustavo Torres on his transition team."
During his campaign for re-election, Ehrlich ran ads attacking O'Malley on his support for giving driver's licenses and in-state tuition to illegal immigrants. O'Malley defended his position, saying that he didn't want to create a "permanent underclass" by depriving immigrants who work and pay taxes of those rights.
Those who support Ehrlich's view cite a Nov. 23 accident in which a 21-year-old Marine from Columbia, home on leave for Thanksgiving, was killed along with his date by a suspected drunken driver.
The man arrested in the incident, Eduardo Raul Morales-Soriano, 25, of Laurel was later found to be an illegal immigrant. Morales-Soriano had a legitimate Maryland driver's license, despite having been cited for a drunken driving accident once before, pointed out Delegate Herb McMillan, R-Anne Arundel, who has repeatedly, unsuccessfully sponsored bills to deny illegal immigrants licenses.
Yet Pinsky said he wasn't convinced stricter license regulations would solve the problem.
"Someone getting hurt or killed in an accident is horrible, but the person could have driven without a license," he said.
As governor, O'Malley could write new licensing regulations, or the General Assembly could change the policy through legislation.
McMillan, who leaves office in January after losing a bid for state Senate, said the rules would probably become more lenient.
"If you're going to give tuition to an illegal immigrant at a university, you're going to give them a driver's license," he said. "I think you're going to see both of those things happening."
Delegate Sheila E. Hixson, D-Montgomery, chairwoman of the Ways and Means Committee, said she plans to reintroduce the in-state tuition bill or let Delegate Victor R. Ramirez, D-Prince George's, do it.
And with no governor's veto to worry about, the bill has a better chance of passing, said Delegate Hank Heller, D-Montgomery, one of its 2003 co-sponsors.
University System of Maryland Chancellor Brit Kirwan, a strong advocate for the bill, said he hoped that would be the case.
"I know it had strong backing a couple of years ago and those individuals are still in the General Assembly," he said.
As for health care, the Court of Appeals reinstated the immigrants' coverage in October, and state health assistance will probably become more extensive with the new administration, Abbruzzese said.
McMillan said that increased state support for illegal immigrants would strain taxpayers and exacerbate problems like overcrowding in schools.
"If you do this, then you are greatly facilitating illegal immigration," he said. "I've often said, 'If you build it, they will come.'"