- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 24, 2011

SMITHSBURG, MD. — Some Marylanders want nothing to do with Delegate Neil C. Parrott and his clipboard. Others approach him as if they’ve been looking for him.

The Washington County Republican, who is leading efforts to block the recently passed Dream Act that would allow in-state college tuition for many illegal immigrants, might have been the most popular man at the Smithsburg Pride Days festival last weekend in his home county.

Many residents in the town of about 3,000 were eager to sign. Few turned down his requests for signatures, and some sought him out or stopped their cars for a chance to help.

“Everyone that I talk to in this area is completely against the bill,” resident Shawn Weddle said. “When I have my taxpayer dollars supporting something that by its name is illegal, to me that’s a complete waste and a complete slap in the face to the taxpayers of Maryland.”

Mr. Parrott and other petition organizers have until June 30 to collect 55,736 valid signatures from Maryland voters in order to force a 2012 referendum on the issue. A more immediate deadline looms next week, as they have until Tuesday to submit one-third, or 18,579, of those signatures to the state Board of Elections.

Mr. Parrott said Tuesday that organizers have collected 25,000 signatures that they think are valid. Many more, though, could be needed, because petitions typically have hundreds or thousands of signatures rejected as a result of errors and technicalities.

“We’ve passed the bare minimum, but we need a surge this week,” said Mr. Parrott, who has set a goal of 35,000 signatures by Tuesday. He and volunteers began collecting signatures four weeks ago.

The Dream Act would allow in-state tuition for college-aged illegal immigrants who have graduated from Maryland schools and come from taxpaying families. The students would start at community colleges but also could pay the in-state rate if they matriculate to a four-year school.

Opponents have visited all of the state’s 23 counties and Baltimore asking for signatures, while relying on residents to download and circulate their own copies of the petition from the website mdpetitions.com.

They say they have been received warmly at numerous events — notably collecting 1,800 signatures at last month’s Towsontown Spring Festival in Baltimore County — and gained bipartisan support.

Organizers have said that 25 percent of people who have downloaded the online petition are registered Democrats. The site accesses the voter information of visitors who enter their names and ZIP codes.

The petition has not played as well in places like Montgomery County — a heavily Democratic area with a growing Hispanic population — where Mr. Parrott spent a recent morning coaxing signatures and passing out fliers at the Shady Grove Metro station.

Many residents declined to sign the petition. One young woman politely explained that she works with Hispanic youths. A federal employee who declined to give his name doubled back after reading the flier to testily ask Mr. Parrott, “Do you really think immigrants don’t deserve a college education?”

Among the supporters was Denise Zdelar of Gaithersburg.

“They would be taking the place of a U.S. citizen’s spot,” Ms. Zdelar said. “That’s not fair to the kids in the United States who were brought up as a U.S. citizen.”

Legislators and activists who support the Dream Act have mostly ignored the petition, while some have publicly doubted that it will garner enough signatures.

“We are not concerned at all about this,” said Gustavo Torres, director of immigrant advocacy group Casa de Maryland. “Maryland is a very progressive state where the immigrant community and minorities are welcome.”

A petition drive has not successfully forced a referendum in the state since 1992, when a law easing restrictions on abortions was upheld in a popular vote.

Petitions typically lose a large number of signatures because of mistakes, and organizers have said that they need to nearly double the state’s signature requirements — a goal that could be difficult to reach.

Errors include incorrect or outdated addresses, signatures on sheets designated for residents of different counties, or invalid forms of names.

State law requires that signers either print and sign their name exactly as it appears in voter registration records or use their complete last name and complete first or middle name, with the remaining name represented by at least an initial.

For example, a man registered as John E. Smith could sign his name as “John E. Smith,” “John Edward Smith” or “J. Edward Smith,” but not as “John Smith,” “Edward Smith” or “J.E. Smith.”

Mr. Parrott said organizers have made sure their signers follow the rules, but the accuracy of signatures from volunteers who downloaded the petition online remains to be seen.

He said organizers have sent 2,000 emails to petitioners asking that they correct errors and that he thinks they will have enough signatures to continue their drive through the end of June.

“Even though the time frame is more pressed, we believe that we’re going to be successful,” he said. “I’m very encouraged with how the campaign is going right now.”

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