Maryland Puts Welcome Mat Out for Virginia Immigrants

By DANIELLE ULMAN, Capital News Service

WASHINGTON - A resolution passed in Virginia's Prince William County last week to crack down on illegal immigrants might bring a mass relocation to welcoming states like Maryland, experts said.

The law bars illegal immigrants from obtaining business licenses and using services for the homeless, elderly and drug-addicted. In addition, police must check suspects' immigration status if there is reason to believe they are here illegally.

Full funding for the law has not yet been approved, so the effective date of the legislation has been delayed. Still, publicity about the law and its future enforcement may be enough to prompt some to uproot.

"They're absolutely coming. Some of the police officers in my district have said they've seen an increase in Virginia license plates driving around," said Will Campos, Prince George's County Council member. "It doesn't mean they're moving here, but they're browsing."

Campos attributed Prince George's tolerance of immigrants to its minority majority population.

"I believe we're a little more progressive in thinking and a little more open to immigration," he said. "There are things that can be compromised and worked out as opposed to completely shutting the door and running scare tactics like they're doing in other places."

Maryland is not the most permissive state when it comes to immigration, said immigration expert William Hanna, however it "is probably in the top half of states in the United States that have been more receptive," to immigrants.

"Some people will obviously be inclined to move to places where they won't be harassed," said the University of Maryland, College Park professor.

Maryland has generally been more relaxed about illegal immigration than Virginia. For example, it is one of only nine states that doesn't check immigration status before issuing a driver's license.

"We have a growing immigrant community in Maryland that's made its economy number one," said Delegate Victor Ramirez, D-Prince George's. That strong economy could draw people to Maryland, he said.

"You're going to start to see folks (in Prince William County) spending their money somewhere else," he said. "It's not just about illegal immigrants, it's about legal immigrants. Why invest money in a county that preaches, to a certain extent, hate?"

Ramirez proposed legislation in January to grant illegal immigrants in-state tuition for public colleges and universities. The bill received initial support, but has been shelved since the General Assembly recessed in April.

Unlike Prince William County, the Montgomery County Council unanimously rejected immigration enforcement training. The federal program has U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents training county police officers to conduct residency status checks on criminal suspects.

"To go down the road that a few counties have done in Northern Virginia—Loudoun and Prince William—is expensive, counterproductive and leads to the harassment of our neighbors," Council Member George Leventhal said at a Sept. 26 town hall meeting.

Takoma Park actually passed a law in 1985 forbidding its police from checking immigration status and then, on Oct. 15, rejected Police Chief Ronald Ricucci's recommendation to loosen that restriction and allow officers to arrest felons who were deported, but returned to the United States.

"Even a fairly narrow amendment would probably erode the trust of the immigrants in the city," said Takoma Park Mayor Kathy Porter.

"I think the way to keep the community safe is to work with the immigrant communities so that they feel comfortable calling the police and alerting the police to illegal behavior."

The city even allows non-U.S. citizens to vote in its elections.

As for more immigrants moving to Maryland, Porter said, "it's not been a worry because we welcome immigrants to our community."

Immigration became a state concern after Congress failed to pass large-scale immigration reform this summer. And many communities are now trying to take matters into their own hands.

Frederick County Commissioner Charles Jenkins's recent attempt to deny public services like schooling to illegal immigrants failed.

"In Maryland we continue to be a sanctuary state," he said. "Until we start to do the things I was hoping to get done, we're going to continue to see the impact."

The state makes it "so easy and so inviting" for illegal immigrants to live in Maryland, Jenkins said. "It's sort of like water; water takes the path of least resistance."

The Virginia group Mexicans without Borders has received many calls from worried residents since the Oct. 17 vote, said Nancy Lyall, a legal coordinator with the group.

"We're advising people to remain calm and assess the situation," she said. "We don't want people to get up and move before we see this through."

While no one that Lyall knows has left Virginia yet, she said she has received frantic calls from people afraid to send their children to school or go to the doctor's office.

"There are a lot of misconceptions about the resolution," she said. "There's a tremendous amount of fear."

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