In Maryland, lawmakers revisiting immigration

In-state tuition plan for those illegally in U.S. ignites debate

February 25, 2007|By Kelly Brewington | Kelly Brewington,Sun reporter

As states nationwide are embroiled in battles over immigrants' rights, Maryland lawmakers are again wrestling with the contentious issue -- and showing signs of easing some restrictions.

The most recent flash point: a bill that would allow illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition at Maryland colleges. Immigrant advocates think the bill has the best chance of passing in years. In 2003, the legislature approved the measure, but Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. vetoed it; this year, Gov. Martin O'Malley has pledged support.

Advocates view the endorsement as evidence of the new administration's embrace of immigrants regardless of their legal status. They say lawmakers seeking to clamp down on illegal immigration have taken notice and have pushed few get-tough provisions this session. An immigrants' rally is scheduled for tomorrow in Annapolis.

Eduardo Tapia, an illegal immigrant who lives in Hyattsville, said that if the legislature passes the in-state tuition bill, he could finally go to college.

"I have a dream that one day I might be sitting where you are," Tapia, 21, told a House of Delegates committee during a recent hearing on the tuition bill. "But I'm afraid that without college, all my dreams won't come true."

Opponents say they will continue to fight what they term a movement to make Maryland a "sanctuary state" for those who are in the country illegally.

"What we are doing is rewarding and providing benefits for people who broke the law," said Del. Patrick L. McDonough, a Republican from Baltimore County who has sponsored a bill that would make English the official language of his jurisdiction.

Still, immigrant advocates are sensing a more tolerant attitude toward immigrants among lawmakers.

"I think the climate has changed, and this body reflects what the majority of Marylanders think about immigration. We are an inclusive state," said Del. Victor R. Ramirez, a Prince George's County Democrat and sponsor of the in-state tuition bill. "Compared to four years ago, I think we're winning."

The opposing views exemplify the explosive battle being engaged in nationwide, as legislatures grapple with what to do about the country's estimated 12 million illegal immigrants. Maryland is home to about 250,000 illegal immigrants, according to a comprehensive Pew Hispanic Center report.

Last year, Congress debated several proposals, including creating a path to citizenship, classifying illegal immigrants as felons and erecting a costly fence along the Mexican border. Some of the more punitive proposals triggered large protests in U.S. cities such as Washington. Some advocates are optimistic that legislation in the Democratic-controlled Congress might break the deadlock.

In state capitals, legislatures considered 570 immigrant-related bills last year, including measures to limit public benefits to illegal immigrants; prevent them from obtaining employment licenses; and a few that sanction the deportation of undocumented immigrants found guilty of a crime, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Although most of the bills were not enacted, they illustrate states' dissatisfaction with the federal government's failure to adopt enforceable and sensible immigration reform, said Demetrios Papademetriou, president of the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute in Washington.

The most restrictive measures being considered this year have been concentrated in states with a sudden surge of illegal immigrants, he said.

In neighboring Virginia, the House of Delegates passed a measure to end support for charities that assist illegal immigrants, but it was defeated by a Senate committee, according to news reports.

By contrast, Maryland immigration debates have been less volatile because of its century-long immigrant history and a Democrat-controlled legislature that has been more inclusive of immigrant communities, Papademetriou said.

"Maryland seems to be taking a few deep breaths and saying, `Let's be adults about it. Let's see what our neighbors in Washington are going to do. Let's not see this as a crisis and be deliberate,' " he said.

This year, Maryland lawmakers have introduced only a half-dozen bills related to illegal immigration. Nevertheless, two bills in particular have been contentious: the in-state tuition proposal and another that would prohibit illegal immigrants from obtaining driver's licenses.

Supporters of the tuition bill say that without in-state rates, talented would-be students such as Tapia would lose a shot at the American dream. Illegal immigrants are not eligible for government-funded financial aid.

In 2005, Tapia graduated from Bladensburg High School with top-notch grades and fluent English, four years after he fled the Mexican state of Puebla alone to join his older brother in Hyattsville.

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