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Natives are Restless

Maryland anti-immigrant group called "extremist" by Southern Poverty Law Center

Unidentified Help Save Maryland spokescanine explains group's position on CASA de Maryland.

By Chris Landers | Posted 3/11/2009

About 60 people stood in the cold and gathering darkness at Annapolis' Lawyer's Mall next to the State House on President's Day, as Susan Payne attempted to place the last few protest signs.

"Maryland is broken--who wants to hold this one?" asked Payne, a voluble woman who heads an organization called Citizens First. "Protect citizens--who wants to hold this sign?"

The crowd, gathered to protest what they see as the growing problem of illegal immigration, was already bristling with signs with various messages--maryland democrats love illegal aliens and their votes, for instance.

Another resembled a Maryland driver's license, read joe terrorist, 123 your street, your town, md, and featured a turbaned man clutching a stick of dynamite. Another: democrats made me miss my daughter's wedding.

Brad Botwin, director of Help Save Maryland, the group that organized the rally, was the first in a series of speakers.

"Welcome to freezing Annapolis," he began. "For those of you who don't know, Help Save Maryland is a statewide, multi-ethnic, grassroots organization dedicated to preserving Maryland, our cities and our towns, from the negative effects of illegal immigration."

If Botwin lingered a bit over the word "multi-ethnic," it was not without cause. Help Save Maryland has been labeled a "nativist extremist" organization by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups in the United States.

"Since 2000," says Heidi Beirich of the Southern Poverty Law Center, "we've seen an explosion of these anti-immigrant groups across the nation."

Beirich says that Help Save Maryland's inclusion on the list means that the center believes the group has crossed a line between legitimate protest and fearmongering.

"We created this distinction between a regular anti-immigration group and a nativist extremist group because . . . a lot of groups attack policy related to illegal immigration, but these groups attack the immigrants themselves," she says. "Protesting the policies is all well and good. That's what you're supposed to do in a democracy. But these in-your-face tactics are worrisome--they sow fear in these [immigrant] communities. It's just scary for the people who are being targeted."

This year there are 173 groups defined by the law center as nativist extremist groups. Two years ago, the center counted 144.

Before the rally, as activists walked the halls of the State House looking for politicians to lobby, Payne said she hoped to focus attention on taxpayer funding of CASA de Maryland, a group that lobbies for immigrants' rights and runs education and workforce programs, but the speakers represented a broad spectrum of causes gathered under the anti-illegal immigrant banner, from the Coalition for a Secure Driver's License, who want to make proof of legal residence a requirement for the Maryland driver's license, to the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which would like to limit all immigration, legal or otherwise.

CASA de Maryland, through staff attorney Michelle Mendez, declined to speak for this article. Mendez said the group's policy was to avoid commenting on anti-immigrant groups, citing e-mail and telephone threats against CASA staff and board members.

An occasional politician passed through the square. Payne spotted Attorney General Doug Gansler, "We miss you in the barrio," she shouted, before turning to explain, "that's what we call Montgomery County." Gansler hurried to his black SUV parked outside the State House.

A number of politicians came to show their support--state delegates Pat McDonough (R-Baltimore County), Ron George (R-Anne Arundel County), Warren Miller (R-Howard County), Gail Bates (R-Howard County), Rick Impallaria (R-Baltimore County), and senators Janet Greenip (R-Anne Arundel County) and Andy Harris (R-Baltimore/Harford Counties).

McDonough, introduced by Payne as "the best friend the state of Maryland has on this issue," addressed critics of what he called a "citizens' rights movement in America."

"We are always told that we are the ones who are intolerant, that we are the ones who are not the mainstream." McDonough told the crowd. "That we are the ones who do not have compassion for the poor folks who come from Mexico and other lands just to get a job and feed their family. Let me tell you the kind of compassion we have as citizens: We have compassion for the taxpayers of Maryland who have to foot the bill for healthcare, and have to foot the bill for those who do not pay taxes. We have compassion for the victims of crime in this state--who illegal aliens, gangbangers, MS-13, people like that, bring victims to our state. That's who we have compassion for."

McDonough warned of a "golden age for illegal aliens" under President Barrack Obama, whose name drew boos from the crowd. "Just wait and see--millions more will come."

Among those singled out for praise by Help Save Maryland's Botwin was Frederick County Sheriff Chuck Jenkins, who became a hero to the movement when he instituted a program to check immigration status on arrestees there.

Rising crime due to illegal immigration was a recurring theme at Help Save Maryland's rally--a claim that Southern Poverty Law Center's Beirich calls unsubstantiated, pointing to studies like one done in 2007 by the American Immigration Law Foundation, which found that the incarceration rate of foreign-born men was far less than that of those born in America. She says anti-immigrant groups rely on a few highly publicized cases to make the argument.

"It's argument by anecdote," she says. "There's no question that this population is far less criminal than white people like me."

Reached by phone, Jenkins characterizes his immigration-status program as a popular success, He says that legal status is identified while arrestees are being booked, and that more than 300 people have been referred to U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement as a result.

"The feedback I'm getting is overwhelmingly positive," Jenkins says. "I would say over 90 percent of the citizens here in Frederick County support it.

In written testimony to the House Committee on Homeland Security on March 5, Jenkins said that despite opposition from the ACLU, CASA, and the NAACP, the program had not harmed relations with Frederick's immigrant community.

Guy Djoken, who heads Frederick's NAACP branch, disputes that claim.

"It's certainly not true," Djoken said in a phone interview. "The immigrant community has been traumatized. . . . We have a vested interest in rooting criminals out of our midst, but this is not the way to go about it."

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