A Maryland ballot measure to allow in-state tuition for some illegal immigrants was expected to generate fierce debate this fall, but it has been somewhat lost in the frenzy over the state's other referendums on same-sex marriage and expanded gambling.
The Maryland Dream Act, which would allow college-aged illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition rates under certain conditions, narrowly passed the General Assembly last year before becoming the state's first law in 20 years to be petitioned to referendum by disapproving voters. Last year, petitioners collected 108,000 valid voter signatures — 40 percent of which came from Democrats and independents — nearly doubling the state's requirement, in what appeared to foreshadow a tough battle over the law leading up to Election Day.
However, this year the issue has taken a back seat to the marriage and casino referendums. Recent polls also suggest that Marylanders are largely on board with the tuition proposal, which has benefited from an aggressive campaign led by influential Democrats, unions and religious leaders against a largely grass-roots and conservative resistance.
"People understand that it's a fairness issue, and that it's about treating all of our Maryland high school graduates the same," said state Sen. Victor R. Ramirez, Prince George's Democrat, who sponsored the legislation in 2011. "People realize that we're not giving anything away, and that this is an opportunity."
The Dream Act, which will appear as Question 4 on the Nov. 6 ballot, would give young illegal immigrants in-state tuition if they spent the final three years of their high school education in Maryland schools and if they or a guardian filed a state income-tax return each year during that span.
Qualifying students would have to start at a two-year community college and sign affidavits promising to seek citizenship once they are eligible.
The campaign in favor of the law has been led by Educating Maryland Kids, a coalition of immigration groups, unions and religious organizations that has raised funds with the help of prominent figures such as Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley.
Opposition has been led by Help Save Maryland — a grass-roots group that has in the past fought illegal immigration largely through emails and a newsletter — and MDPetitions.com, which organized last year's petition effort against the Dream Act.
Help Save Maryland director Brad Botwin acknowledges that his side has a formidable opponent in Educating Maryland Kids, which recently bought $54,000 in radio ads promoting its cause. Mr. Botwin said his group has also bought radio ad time, but declined to say how much it spent.
Money spent on these ads is pocket change compared with the gambling referendum, where casino groups and developers have thrown millions into TV and radio ads for and against adding a sixth casino in the state. The ballot question to legalize gay marriage has Mr. O'Malley campaigning and fundraising out of state, and national traditional-marriage and gay-rights groups have contributed millions to the fray.
Mr. Botwin argues that the Dream Act is the most pressing issue for Marylanders. If it passes, he said it would make the state a destination for illegal immigrants and could cause a run on college enrollment, which he says would overcrowd the state's colleges and universities and push out out-of-state students who pay higher rates.
"College is not a right; it's a privilege, and they should pay their own way," he said. "I think [supporters] are going to be in for a shock when the votes come in, because this isn't fair."
Several recent polls have suggested that voters aren't too upset about the proposal.
A poll last month by Gonzales Research Group showed that 58 percent of registered Maryland voters favor the Dream Act, while just 34 percent oppose it, and 8 percent are undecided.
Another poll commissioned last month by Educating Maryland Kids and conducted by Garin-Hart-Yang Research Group showed that 60 percent of voters favor the law and 26 percent oppose it, while 14 percent are undecided.
The Mellman Group's poll last month — done on behalf of For Maryland Jobs and Schools, a pro-gambling-expansion group — showed support at 61 percent and opposition at 27 percent.
However, an OpinionWorks poll commissioned last week by the Baltimore Sun showed the difference between supporters and opponents of the law was within the 3.5 percent margin of error, with 44 percent of voters supporting the law and 41 percent opposing it.
"Rather than making an emotional decision, a factual decision needs to be made on the issue," said Delegate Neil C. Parrott, Washington Republican and chairman of MDPetitions.com. "I'm very positive that we're going to win it."
The Dream Act has gained support from not only leading Democrats, but also from the University System of Maryland, which argues that the law -- in combination with President Obama's executive action this year allowing young illegal immigrants to get work permits without risking deportation — will help to produce a better educated, more capable workforce in the state.
Opponents "try to make it an immigration issue, and it isn't," Mr. Ramirez said. "This is an investment, and it's a decision that we have to make."
If voters approve the law, it would make Maryland the 12th state to approve in-state tuition rates for some illegal immigrants.
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