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Immigration bill draws criticism
500 gather in Fells Point to decry legislation that would make it a crime to assist those living in the U.S. illegally

By John-John Williams IV Sun reporter
Originally published March 20, 2006
The Rev. J.L. Carter of Baltimore says he's never gone to jail and has never been arrested, but he would do so if that's what it takes to help illegal immigrants.

Carter, the leader of the Ark Church in Baltimore, was joined by 500 men and women of various faiths yesterday at St. Patrick's Catholic Church in Fells Point as members of BUILD - Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development - a faith-based nonprofit organization, spoke out against pending immigration reform legislation that would make it a crime for others - including religious workers - to assist illegal immigrants.

If H.R. 4437, also known as the Border Protection, Antiterrorism and Illegal Immigration Act of 2005, becomes law, Carter and other members pledge that if they have to, they will go to jail.

"If we have to take on local government, local government get ready to fight," Carter said. "If we have to break the law to help, we are willing to go to jail for the family."

Immigration reform has resulted in similar rallies nationwide. Earlier this month an estimated 40,000 people attended a protest in Washington.

The legislation, which passed the House of Representatives in December, is scheduled for Senate debate starting March 27.

Alma Saldana-Santana, a Spanish interpreter at Johns Hopkins Medical Center, said she will not have a job if the legislation becomes law.

"Ninety percent of the people I help at the hospital are illegal," Saldana-Santana said after a testimonial at yesterday's gathering.

Maryland's illegal immigrant population increased from 120,000 to 250,000 between 2000 and 2004, according to a recent study by the Pew Hispanic Center, based in Washington.

The Illegal Immigration Act would allow state and local police to enforce federal immigration law, and require that a wall be built along the U.S.-Mexico border. Proponents of the legislation say the regulations will help combat terrorism.

Cardinal William H. Keeler of Baltimore said the pending legislation is "evil."

"We need legislation that is fair and equitable and shows that the U.S. is a welcoming nation," Keeler said.

"It angers me that we are talking about freedom and democracy all over the world ... when there are people in this room who are not benefiting from that same democracy," said Rod Miller, representing the United Methodist Church.

"The ownership of America is not in the hands of confused white European descendants, the ownership of America is not in the hands of the federal government," Carter said. "The ownership of America is in the hands of God."

The pairing of the African-American and Latino communities is a historic one, according to BUILD lead organizer Rob English.

The Rev. Joseph L. Muth Jr., of St. Matthew Roman Catholic Church in Baltimore, likened the fight against the immigration bill to the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

"We need to learn from the wisdom, strength of the civil rights movement and bring that to bear for our immigrant sisters and brothers," said Muth.

"We know what discrimination feels like," said Carter, an African-American. "We know what it feels like to fight for a place in America. These things we know all too well."

BUILD is scheduled to meet with Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele in the coming weeks, and is attempting to set up meetings with Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, according to English.

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski opposes the legislation and sent a member of her staff to attend yesterday's gathering.

"We are all God's people," said Natalie Nowell, a member of Carter's congregation after hearing her pastor speak. "None of this should be in the hands of confused politicians."