By Sabrina Tavernise
May 8, 2017
ELLICOTT CITY, Md. — 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.
Some even felt it threatened their hard-won hold on the American dream.
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.
What follows are the stories of four immigrants in Maryland who oppose sanctuary status — people whose voices have rarely been heard in the long debate over how to fix the nation’s immigration system.
Some supporters of sanctuary had dismissed them as white-collar professionals whose personal struggles could not compare with those of undocumented people now facing possible deportation.
But anyone who thought their journeys were easy, these immigrants said, has never walked in their shoes.
Growing up in China, J. D. Ma shared a small room with his parents and sister in a communal apartment in a working-class district of Shanghai. They had to take turns with two other families — 14 people in all — to use a single bathroom.
His maternal grandfather, a history teacher, was sent to a labor camp in 1957 under Mao Zedong. The family eventually received a letter saying he had committed suicide.
But still, they considered themselves lucky: They lived in the city. They had running water.
From the age of 9, Mr. Ma was pushed to learn English by his mother. “Study harder,” she told him. “Score higher.” At 12, he won entry into a highly selective boarding school where he toiled for 13 hours a day.
Today, Mr. Ma, 45, is a patent attorney, living in a stately home in Clarksville, Md., after years of study at universities in New York, Utah and Virginia and a first career as a software engineer. His wife, also a Chinese immigrant, works for the National Weather Service. Two-thirds of their daughter’s second-grade classmates have parents from China or India.
Mr. Ma sees his whole life as a struggle to achieve his Americanness.
“Being in America is such a high privilege,” he said, sitting in his brightly painted kitchen. “As an immigrant I really feel it.” He added: “You cannot easily give that privilege to somebody without going through some kind of process. It’s like giving lots of gold for one dollar.”
Mr. Ma voted for Hillary Clinton. But hearing liberals talk about undocumented immigrants confuses him: The fact that their entering the country broke the law is somehow sidestepped, like a crude remark at a polite dinner party. Democrats oppose deportation on the grounds that it breaks up families, Mr. Ma said. But so do other aspects of the justice system — without setting off the same outcry.
“If a single mother commits a crime and has to go to jail,” he said, “we don’t say, ‘Oh, we can’t do that, because it will break her family.’”
This perspective baffled the sanctuary bill’s supporters.
Why, they asked, were naturalized citizens like Mr. Ma so threatened by the act of protecting people living in the country illegally — many of whom had worked just as hard, and put down roots of their own, thanks to years of lax immigration enforcement and an economy that depended on their labor?
Undocumented immigrants, after all, live much more tenuous existences. Mr. Ma said that a liberal friend had chided him for not understanding his own advantages, compared with “people who were here babysitting and doing all the cleaning and cutting grass for people.”
Mr. Ma has thought about this argument a lot. But he has concluded that it is irrelevant to the broader issue of legality.
Rather than treating the nation at large as complicit, he focuses on personal responsibility.
“Just because you are a productive member of society, working hard, mowing lawns, that should not be the reason to give you that gold,” he said. “You kind of jammed something down America’s throat. You said, ‘I understand you haven’t given me permission to contribute, but I want to contribute. So here I am doing it.’”
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. Mr. Salazar still remembers being amazed by his first all-you-can-eat buffet, and playing an arcade game called Paperboy, in which you raced on a bike, tossing newspapers and dodging obstacles on a suburban street.
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, who rides the subway into Washington every morning to her job serving sandwiches in a museum.
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. The young arrivals are more susceptible to recruitment by gangs.
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.”
On a recent spring afternoon here, a school bus bumped down a residential street, passed a woman wearing a bright green sari and came to a halt in front of a brick house with a lawn worn from soccer games and a well-used goal. The son and daughter of Biplab Pal stepped down and scampered home.
Immigrants have been coming here for years: Koreans at first, Indians more recently. Mr. Pal, 43, arrived in 2008, drawn by good schools. A third of the children in his son’s fourth-grade class are Indian-American. Their parents are highly educated: Mr. Pal’s real estate agent has a Ph.D. in biochemistry.
Gregarious and sharp-witted, Mr. Pal talked with Indian friends about the Howard County sanctuary bill. They did not like it.
Some told of sacrifices like missing a parent’s funeral back in India, because traveling home could jeopardize the yearslong pursuit of a green card. With so many people waiting in line for years, the idea of providing sanctuary for those who had broken the law left a sour taste.
The more pressing priority, they told him, should be improving legal immigration.
“You see the Indians get very angry because they have suffered so much to get a green card,” said Mr. Pal, sitting at a table laden with Indian sweets. “They think a country with one-sixth of the world’s population should have more slots. But instead, everybody is fighting for illegal immigration.”
Mr. Pal got his own green card in just a few months, as part of a special category reserved for inventors and researchers. His company makes software that tracks the functioning of factory equipment.
He had a different objection to sanctuary: He believed it would lead to an increase in crime.
He used to live in Los Angeles, in a neighborhood with many undocumented immigrants and lots of crime. He saw a connection.
He conceded that his evidence was only anecdotal. But the research that liberals were always sending him to change his mind was unsatisfying. “It’s always crime statistics for all immigrants,” he said. “It’s true — crime is very low for legal immigrants. But I want to know about illegal immigrants. Nobody has statistics for that.”
Mr. Pal is a Democrat, like most Indian-Americans. He voted for Mrs. Clinton. But in the rush to oppose Mr. Trump, he believes, Democrats moved too far left on immigration.
It wasn’t always like this. In 1996, President Bill Clinton talked about illegal immigration as a problem.
But now the talk is of sanctuary, which Mr. Pal believes would amount to an invitation. “Do we really want more illegal immigrants in our country?” he said. “I don’t think the answer is yes.”
And he is happy that illegal border crossings have declined. “I don’t want to sound like a Trump supporter, but something is working,” he said.
Most undocumented immigrants are Latino, and some sanctuary supporters believe that the Asian-Americans who oppose it — and who came to this country by airplane to earn graduate degrees — look down on those who crossed the border on foot, as a matter of race, class or misplaced fear.
Perhaps legal immigrants should be more understanding, Mr. Pal said, but that might be asking too much.
“Frankly speaking, each immigrant has their own little story of how they struggled in the United States,” he said. “To tell the truth, illegal people have suffered 1,000 times more. But people only see their own suffering.”
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. She remembers days of protesting and nights staying up late talking about change. 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.
She knocked on doors for a presidential candidate before she could even vote — in 2004 in Pennsylvania for John Kerry. She was angry about the war in Iraq. 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.
“I read my draft, but then I totally changed it,” Ms. Zhou recalled. “I talked a lot about how many years it took to get citizenship, and I actually started crying. One person said, ‘Don’t do that!’ And someone else said, ‘Let her cry!’”
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.
Though she opposes sanctuary, Ms. Zhou said that immigrants in the country illegally should be given a chance to gain citizenship, not be deported. But that is a nuanced position, and these are polarized times.
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.”
Ms. Zhou felt stung, but also confused. All she had done was disagree.