Maryland Democrats and immigration activists gathered Tuesday to celebrate passage of the Dream Act on the same day opponents said they are nearing a key milestone in forcing a referendum on the issue.
Officials, students and representatives from the Hispanic advocacy group Casa de Maryland met in Wheaton, which is home to a large immigrant population, to cheer last week's signing of the law by Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat.
The controversial law will allow college-age illegal immigrants from taxpaying families to pay in-state tuition rates at Maryland community colleges and potentially four-year institutions.
"This is really about putting a face on the issue," said Sen. Victor R. Ramirez, a Prince George's Democrat and the law's lead sponsor. "These are high school graduates. This is not a handout it's an opportunity."
While the state Dream Act has been signed into law, opponents are collecting signatures in an attempt to suspend it and force a statewide 2012 referendum on the issue.
A federal Dream Act failed last year in Congress, but Democrats began discussing another push for the bill last week.
Maryland law requires that the referendum petitioners submit 55,736 valid signatures from registered Maryland voters to the state Board of Elections by June 30. At least one-third of the signatures, or 18,579, must be turned in by May 31.
Delegate Patrick L. McDonough, a Baltimore County Republican who is helping lead the drive, estimated Tuesday that organizers are "very close" to reaching the May 31 goal and expect to exceed the requirement in the next two weeks.
"I think they're celebrating too soon," he said of the bill's supporters. "They shouldn't be popping the champagne corks just yet."
Mr. McDonough and co-organizer Delegate Neil C. Parrott, a Washington County Republican, have said they want to nearly double the signature requirements because many signatures will likely be invalidated because of signer and organizer errors.
Numerous restrictions cause signatures to be invalidated. The most frequent errors include signers omitting middle names or initials that appear in their voter-registration records and signers from different counties appearing together on the same signature sheet.
In collecting their signatures, organizers have relied largely on a website that allows visitors to print and circulate their own copy of the petition. Mr. McDonough said he also has received more than 2,000 petition requests from residents without Internet access.
He said organizers expect to release an official signature estimate on Friday.
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