O'Malley boosts tuition measure

Debate widens over allowing in-state rates for illegal immigrants

General Assembly

March 29, 2007|By Kelly Brewington and Jennifer Skalka | Kelly Brewington and Jennifer Skalka,Sun reporters

Gov. Martin O'Malley pledged yesterday to sign a bill allowing some illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition at public universities in Maryland, giving a boost to a contentious measure that has unleashed an impassioned debate over civil rights and the failures of federal immigration policy.

"We are not a people or a country that has ever willfully chosen to condemn people to live in the shadows of our society," O'Malley said yesterday after the House passed the bill 81-57 late Monday. "Education is the light that allows individuals to create greater opportunity for all of us."

Maryland immigrant advocates say having the governor's support gives the measure the best chance of becoming law in years. The General Assembly approved similar legislation in 2003, but Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. vetoed it.

Frustrated with the federal government's failure to reach a consensus on what to do about the nation's estimated 12 million illegal immigrants, Maryland and states nationwide have attempted to tackle some of the complex issues surrounding illegal immigration.

About 20 state legislatures are now grappling with the in-state tuition issue. Meanwhile, 10 others have passed such legislation, including Texas, California, Utah and Kansas, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Nevertheless, some lawmakers are reluctant to take up the thorny issue of immigration altogether.

Sen. Roy P. Dyson, a Democrat from Southern Maryland and vice chairman of the Senate committee to which the bill is assigned, is skeptical that the bill will make it to the Senate floor for a vote. It is scheduled for a hearing Wednesday in the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee.

"The committee has dealt with a lot of very controversial issues," Dyson said. "I just don't see this type of thing passing."

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, said costs, not controversy, could hurt the bill's chances.

"The criteria is the cost to the state, and we haven't solved the state's fiscal crisis," he said.

Miller, who voted in favor of the bill Ehrlich vetoed in 2003, said he hasn't looked closely at this year's version, but that he's sympathetic to the issue.

"If you try to explain this bill on its face to Joe Citizen, he would be against it," Miller said. "But if you explain that the parents must be taxpayers to the state and the students are in good standing, there are mitigating reasons why this bill makes sense."

To be eligible for in-state tuition, a student would have to prove attendance at a Maryland high school for at least two years and demonstrate an intent to apply for legal residence. The student's parents must be paying Maryland taxes.

If in-state tuition is approved, the cost to the state could increase by $1.1 million by 2012, according to a report by legislative analysts that estimates that 400 illegal immigrants are now attending Maryland community colleges and paying out-of-state rates. It is not known how many students would apply if they were eligible for in-state tuition.

At the University of Maryland, College Park, the out-of-state tuition rate for 2007-2008 is $21,345, while Maryland residents pay $7,906.

Advocates for immigrants say potential students would be more likely to attend a less costly school, such as Montgomery College, where tuition for county residents is $3,708 while the out-of-state rate is $9,612 per year. Baltimore City Community College charges $78 a credit hour versus $168 for out-of-state students and "foreign nonimmigrant residents."

O'Malley, Chancellor William E. Kirwan of the University System of Maryland and other supporters of the bill have underscored the long-term social benefits of affordable college tuition.

"We are already required by law to provide education for children of immigrants up through high school," O'Malley said. "Why on earth after all that public investment of your dollars and mine would we want to cap their potential and not allow them to go to a state college? I think that's squandering an investment we've already made in our country and our state."

Illegal immigrants are not eligible for state or federal financial aid, such as Pell Grants and low- interest Stafford loans.

Del. Victor R. Ramirez, a Prince George's County Democrat who sponsored the bill, said that without it, bright students too poor to afford out-of-state tuition are forced to defer their dreams and toil in low-wage jobs.

He said he is optimistic about its chances in the Senate and hopes to educate lawmakers on the issue.

"It's a fairness and equality bill," he said. "I think some people who are not familiar with the issue don't realize we are not talking about criminals, we are talking about hard-working students who want to go to college."

But some members of the Senate say they fear the bill would take opportunities away from deserving citizens.

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