ANNAPOLIS | The House gave preliminary approval Thursday to a bill that would allow in-state college tuition for many illegal immigrants, after a marathon debate that delayed progress on other major but unfinished legislative business, including plans to increase the alcohol sales tax.
The Senate-backed DREAM Act would allow college-aged illegal immigrants who live in Maryland and come from tax-paying families to pay in-state tuition at the state's community colleges and earn the same privilege if they matriculate to a state-run four-year university.
The full House debate grinded along for hours as Republicans submitted more than 10 amendments, all of which were rejected by the Democrat-controlled chamber.
GOP members argued that the bill extends an undeserved privilege to illegal immigrants at the expense of legal residents, while supporters contended it will largely benefit illegal immigrants who are long-term residents and had no choice in entering the country.
"We shouldn't punish [illegal immigrant] students over a decision their parents may have made," said Delegate Anne R. Kaiser, Montgomery Democrat.
If approved, the bill would allow illegal immigrants who have recently graduated from Maryland schools to attend community college at in-state rates, provided they sign affidavits saying they will seek citizenship within 30 days of becoming eligible. They also would have to prove that they or a legal guardian paid income tax in each of the previous three years.
The Senate approved the bill last month, and a House committee added requirements that students register with the Selective Service and that they not count against in-state student quotas at four-year schools, to prevent legal state residents from losing admission slots.
If the House passes the bill, the Senate would have to either accept the House amendments or negotiate the changes in a conference committee.
The bill's critics questioned its legality during the floor debate, pointing to federal laws prohibiting higher education for illegal immigrants. Supporters argued that 11 states offer in-state tuition for illegal immigrants and haven't encountered serious legal challenges.
Maryland Delegate Richard K. Impallaria, Harford Republican, said Maryland's bill could open the door for illegal immigrants to willfully move to the state specifically to receive a reduced-price education.
House Majority Leader Kumar P. Barve, Montgomery Democrat, said he expects the bill to pass the full House, which could give final approval as early as Friday.
The bill could cost the state $800,000 to implement in fiscal 2012 and $3.5 million by fiscal 2014, according to legislative analysts.
The lengthy floor session forced delays of a House committee vote to increase the state alcohol sales tax from 6 percent to 9 percent. The House Ways and Means Committee was expected to pass the alcohol tax legislation and send it to the House floor but had to delay the vote until at least Friday morning.
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