Maryland voters will decide this November whether to allow in-state tuition rates for some illegal immigrants, and activists on both sides of the issue are ramping up efforts to get their message out to the public.
The state's Dream Act would allow many college-aged illegal immigrants to pay in-state rates to attend community colleges and potentially continue to four-year universities. The General Assembly narrowly passed the law in April 2011, but it was petitioned to the ballot by voters.
Supporters say the law will help hard-working teens pay for an education they are otherwise unable to afford, while opponents contend it is in violation of federal immigration laws and will only add to state education expenses.
People on both sides will spend countless hours and potentially millions of dollars in hopes of swaying voters before Election Day.
"The goal is to educate the population. I'm not going to affix any number to it, but any state campaign that wants to do paid media or any kind of real statewide media plan has to raise millions of dollars," said Travis Tazelaar, campaign manager for Educating Maryland Kids, a coalition leading the pro-Dream Act campaign. "The goal is to educate the population."
If it is ratified by the voters, the law would add Maryland to at least 11 other states that have passed legislation allowing reduced tuition for illegal immigrants.
Delegate Neil C. Parrott, who co-chaired last year's petition effort and will figure in this year's campaign, says state residents of various political and cultural backgrounds consider the law to be an illegal taxpayer subsidy that will inconvenience legal residents.
State analysts say the cost of educating Dream Act students would add nearly $800,000 to state spending in the program's first year, with the price rising to $3.5 million by its third year.
Opponents predict it could lead to a run on education by thousands of illegal immigrants, while proponents insist only a few hundred high-achieving students will qualify.
Delegate Patrick L. McDonough has been a vocal opponent of the law and helped move the petition drive.
"During these tough budget times, it's another burden, it's another benefit," said the Baltimore County Republican. "Working families and minorities are having a tough time affording and getting their children into college, and this is going to displace those folks."
Mr. Parrott agreed.
"These are people who are 18 or older," said the Washington Republican. "They need to take responsibility as an adult to get into the United States legally."
Dream Act supporters say that is easier said than done for teenagers who have spent years integrating into American society and in many cases have little or no memory of their birth countries.
Many such students live with parents who speak little English and work low-paying jobs, and are thus unable to afford out-of-state tuition costs that are often double or triple in-state rates.
The law would require students to earn a Maryland high school diploma and spend the final three years of their high school education at a Maryland school. They or a guardian would also have to file a Maryland income-tax return each year during that span.
Such students would then have to start their coursework at a community college and sign affidavits promising to seek citizenship once they are eligible. If they graduate from community college, they would be able to get in-state tuition rates at a four-year school.
Dream Act students would not be counted against in-state enrollment quotas, which is expected to prevent them from taking the spots of legal resident in-state students.
"This is going to affect very small, talented, hard-working groups of students," saidKristin Ford, communications director for Educating Maryland Kids. "They're paying the same taxes, they're going to the same high schools, they're living in the same neighborhood. Let's all make sure they pay the same in-state tuition rate."
Dream Act supporters have backing from immigrant-advocacy groups, unions and many Democrats, and will likely outspend their competition, said Todd Eberly, coordinator of public policy studies at St. Mary's College of Maryland.
National immigration groups might stay out of the campaign, he said, to instead focus on presidential and congressional races that will more heavily influence national immigration policy.
While Dream Act supporters should have a fundraising edge, Mr. Eberly said opponents will have an emotional advantage as many residents are worried about the economy and may be reluctant to vote for a law that could add to tax bills and create more competition for future jobs.
He said President Obama's recent executive action to protect many young illegal immigrants from deportation could also have mixed effects on how Maryland residents vote this fall.
The action, issued earlier this month, will allow many illegal immigrants younger than 30 and without criminal records to live and work without threat of deportation.
Qualified immigrants must have moved to the U.S. before age 16 and been here at least five years. They must also be high school graduates, current students or military veterans, and would be allowed to obtain renewable two-year work permits — providing an easier path from college to a career.
"In the eyes of some people, this sort of went beyond [Mr. Obama's] responsibilities and beyond Congress," Mr. Eberly said. "It could inspire some folks to come out and vote in support, but it'sprobably served as well to reignite some of the anger of those who are opposed."
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