Sanctuary Bills in Maryland Faced a Surprise Foe: Legal Immigrants

Sabrina Tavernise, NY Times, May 8, 2017

When lawmakers in Howard County, Md., a stretch of suburbia between Washington and Baltimore, declared their intention to make the county a sanctuary for people living in the country illegally, J. D. Ma thought back to how hard he had worked studying English as a boy in Shanghai.

Stanley Salazar, a native of El Salvador, worried that the violent crime already plaguing Maryland’s suburbs attributed to immigrant gangs would eventually touch his own daughters.

Hongling Zhou, who had been a student in Beijing during the Tiananmen Square uprising, feared an influx of undocumented immigrants, and their children, would cripple the public schools.

At first blush, making Howard County a sanctuary for undocumented immigrants had seemed a natural move: The county has twice as many Democrats as Republicans and a highly educated population, full of scientists and engineers. One in five residents was born abroad.

But the bill met stout opposition from an unlikely source: some of those very same foreign-born residents.

In passionate testimony before county legislators, and in tense debates with liberal neighbors born in the United States, legal immigrants argued that offering sanctuary to people who came to the country illegally devalued their own past struggles to gain citizenship.

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Their objections stunned Democratic supporters of sanctuary here and helped bring about the bill’s demise in March. A similar proposal for the state collapsed this month in the Maryland Senate, where Democrats also hold a two-to-one advantage. Some of the same immigrants spoke out against it.

The failure of the sanctuary bills in Maryland reveals a potentially troublesome fissure for Democrats as they rush to defy Mr. Trump. Their party has staked out an activist position built around protecting undocumented immigrants. But it is one that has alienated many who might have been expected to support it.

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The Carpenter

Many Hispanics welcomed Democrats’ efforts to make Maryland a sanctuary. Stanley Salazar, 37, did not.

A carpenter in Silver Spring, he compares living in the country illegally to being a guest in someone’s home: Be on your best behavior. Make your bed and do the dishes. Any misbehavior — drinking and driving, for example — could mean you are no longer welcome.

Mr. Salazar, who is from El Salvador, knows this because he himself was illegal.

He first visited the United States when he was 10. His mother, a biology teacher, had a sister in Reno who had married an American.

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His journey back, and to American citizenship, was long, but compared with more recent immigrants’, relatively painless: He left law school in El Salvador in 2001 and traveled to Maryland on a tourist visa, but violated its terms by painting houses for cash. After several extensions, his visa expired. But he spoke English, thanks to his mother’s tireless teaching. She had a green card. And he had a driver’s license, a bank account and a car. By 2007, he had his own green card.

Now, he lives in a small house with his wife, their daughters and his mother, 73.

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Mr. Salazar thinks sanctuary would be bad for Maryland. He bases this on what has already happened in Montgomery County, where he has been part of a Hispanic population boom.

The Salvadoran gang MS-13 has gained strength in the area recently, the authorities say, partly because of an influx of undocumented children arriving without their parents.

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Mr. Salazar sees the statistics: At least 16 homicides in the county have been attributed to gangs since June 2015. About half have been linked to MS-13, including the killing of a 15-year-old girl in Gaithersburg.

“I have three daughters right now and I’m thinking about them,” Mr. Salazar said, sipping a milkshake at a Burger King in Gaithersburg. “Don’t I have the right to be afraid that this kind of stuff is increasing?”

But Mr. Salazar has other worries, too. The public school population has risen sharply, and the county recently raised property taxes by about 9 percent to keep up. The share of students enrolled in classes for English learners rose to 14.6 percent of the school population this year, up from 11.2 percent in 2009, and accounted for more than half the total increase of students in the school system this year.

But that burden is borne unequally, he said. The high school Mr. Salazar’s daughters would attend, where more than 40 percent of students receive subsidized lunch, is ranked far below one in affluent Bethesda, where fewer than 5 percent qualify.

Mr. Salazar dismisses proponents of sanctuary as liberals living in areas that are insulated from the potential consequences. He believes politicians “are using us like flags,” casting immigrants as blameless victims.

But immigrants are people with flaws, he said. They need a way to gain legal status, not a safe space to remain here illegally.

“We are not unicorns jumping over rainbows,” he said. “We are people. This is life. And life is hard.”

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The Statistician

Hongling Zhou was born in 1966, the year Mao Zedong started the Cultural Revolution. Politics followed her throughout her young life.

She was a graduate student in math when the 1989 student movement ignited protests across the country.

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When the military killed hundreds of protesters in Beijing, she could not bear to stay.

“We left after that — a lot of us left after that,” she said, sitting at her kitchen table.

At Indiana University, she earned a master’s degree in statistics while working part time in a hospital. Now, Ms. Zhou lives in Clarksville, Md., with her husband, a software engineer who also emigrated from China, and their son and daughter.

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Her first vote after becoming a citizen in 2007 was for Barack Obama.

But never has she been more politically active than during the short life of the sanctuary bill in Howard County.

Ms. Zhou first learned of it on WeChat, a messaging app popular among Chinese-Americans. She talked to friends and neighbors. Nobody liked the idea. Many were afraid that carving out a safe space for illegal immigrants would mean that more would come, and that public-school classes would swell and teachers would be spread thin.

So on a cold night in early January, about a dozen people gathered around Ms. Zhou’s long wooden dining table, drafted short speeches and took turns delivering them over steaming bowls of sweet bean soup with chia seeds. Most, she said, had never done anything more political than vote.

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The bill’s supporters argued that, sanctuary or not, undocumented immigrants would be unable to afford housing in the county, where the typical home is valued at around $430,000.

But Ms. Zhou saw things differently. Immigrants double up in houses, she said. They rent apartments or mobile homes. Her cleaning lady, who she recently discovered is undocumented, lives in a trailer in the county.

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Ms. Zhou and several dozen opponents posed for a group photograph after testifying in Annapolis. They were smiling. Many wore yellow T-shirts made for the occasion.

On Facebook, someone commented: “Trump Terrorists.”

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