Reporting from Washington — The fierce battle to pass a law in Maryland that offers in-state college tuition to illegal immigrants who graduate from the state's high schools immediately launched another fight — one aimed at persuading voters to stop it from taking effect.
Maryland's version of the DREAM Act was approved in May by the General Assembly and signed by the governor, and would have become law on July 1. But in a state where public referendums are rare — the last one was 20 years ago — the polarized tone that dominates the national debate on immigration helped opponents launch a petition drive that had no trouble amassing the minimum 55,700 signatures to put the issue before voters in November 2012. Until then, the new law is suspended.
Opponents of the law say Maryland can't afford to subsidize the college education of illegal immigrants. Supporters, who say they will challenge the petition drive in court, say that the effort used misinformation to persuade people to sign and that the law grants undocumented students only some of the rights enjoyed by other Maryland high school graduates.
"This is just the beginning of the big fight you're going to have over the next 12 to 15 months," said Gustavo Torres, executive director of Casa de Maryland, a Latino and minority rights advocacy group that supports the law. The group expects to raise between $3 million and $5 million for an educational campaign it will launch with the help of 25 other organizations, Torres said.
Maryland Republicans, many of whom voted against the law, say the successful petition drive indicates a high level of public opposition. They argue that the law will cost taxpayers money to educate students who cannot be legally hired in the state.
Of the first 47,000 people who signed the petition, nearly 30% were Democrats and 11% were unaffiliated, according to data from the Maryland State Board of Elections.
"Clearly, this is not a partisan issue as far as the population," said Neil Parrott, a Republican state delegate who organized the petition and referred to the legislation as the "False Hope Act." "They understand it costs too much; they understand it breaks federal immigration laws."
Although immigration laws are largely a federal matter, Washington has left it to states to decide whether undocumented students have the right to pay resident tuition rates in the states where they attend high school.
Illegal immigrants are eligible for in-state tuition in 13 states. On one side of the spectrum lies California, where the U.S. Supreme Court recently refused to hear an appeal to a law that grants in-state tuition to illegal immigrants who meet specific criteria. In Alabama, lawmakers passed a law in June that not only denies in-state tuition to illegal immigrants, it bans them from even enrolling in public colleges.
The Maryland law sets eligibility requirements for undocumented students: They must complete three years of high school in Maryland and prove that their parents file tax returns. After completing two years of community college, a student can transfer to a public university.
The law also stipulates that students who are not permanent residents must provide the community college with an affidavit stating that they will apply to become one within 30 days of becoming eligible. Male students must register with the Selective Service.
The difference in cost for students is substantial: In-state tuition and fees at the University of Maryland run $8,655 annually, but for out-of-state residents they rise to $26,026.
"Marylanders are misinformed about the intent and content" of the law, said Bishop Douglas Miles, pastor of Koinonia Baptist Church in Baltimore. Opponents make it seem like a "free ride, when in truth the law specifically states parents have to be tax-paying Marylanders," he said.
Democratic state Sen. Richard Madaleno Jr. said the law simply seeks to ensure that children are not held accountable for their parents' actions.
"I think the opponents of the law have tried to mischaracterize the bill from the beginning and tried to scare people into thinking that it does a lot more than it actually does do," Madaleno said.
Miles' church, along with more than 120 other parishes across the state, is part of Maryland's Industrial Areas Foundation, a robust community-organizing network that supports the law. With 85 member institutions in the state, the network has enough resources to mobilize its members to the polls, said Alisa Glassman, lead organizer of Action in Montgomery, a nonpartisan alliance of 30 congregations and neighborhood organizations in Montgomery County.
"Many African Americans forget that just two generations ago, it was legal in the state of Maryland for African Americans to pay taxes and yet not be able to attend the University of Maryland. So this is not just about what's legal — it's about what's just," Miles said.
Maryland is the first state to put the tuition question before voters.
"I think Republicans will use this issue to try to mobilize voters to the polls," Stella Rouse, professor of political science at the University of Maryland who specializes in minority politics, said in an email. "How well Democrats [and] immigration advocate groups … can counter-mobilize will showcase a mini-national referendum on this issue similar to what occurred with [Proposition] 8 in California," which banned same-sex marriage.