Immigrant tuition bill put off until next year

It would allow students to qualify for in-state rates

General Assembly

April 10, 2007|By Kelly Brewington | Kelly Brewington,SUN REPORTER

The General Assembly adjourned yesterday without taking a final vote on a bill dealing with one of the nation's most contentious issues: illegal immigration.

Lawmakers in the Senate were bitterly divided over a measure that would allow illegal immigrants who have graduated from Maryland high schools to qualify for in-state tuition.

The House of Delegates approved the legislation last month, after an emotional debate that touched on civil rights and the failure of federal immigration laws.

But after Senate Republicans threatened last week to filibuster if the bill advanced to the Senate floor, the committee assigned to the legislation declined to vote on it yesterday.

Supporters expressed frustration with lawmakers' inaction, vowing to push the measure next year. Those who opposed the bill said it was akin to awarding a taxpayer subsidy for lawbreakers.

"It's bad public policy," said Sen. Andrew P. Harris, a Baltimore County Republican. "It's also giving these students a false promise. They will never be able to get a job in Maryland if they are illegal. Why not concentrate on educating legal citizens who will go on to contribute to our state?"

Del. Victor R. Ramirez, a Prince George's County Democrat who is the bill's sponsor, said that until the session's final hours, he was optimistic about passage.

"It's unfortunate," he said. "We took our shot, and the House showed much leadership in making Maryland an inclusive state."

Ramirez said he thought the bill's failure would hurt Democrats.

"This raises questions about how inclusive the Maryland Democratic Party wants to be toward immigrants," he said. "If we don't do something soon, I think we are going to see immigrant voters turn on the Democratic Party.

The bill got a boost from Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat who pledged to sign the legislation and yesterday made a last-ditch effort to persuade lawmakers to approve it. The General Assembly approved similar legislation in 2003, but Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, vetoed it.

O'Malley spokesman Rick Abbruzzese said the governor was "disappointed" that the Assembly did not pass the measure.

Sen. Joan Carter Conway, a Baltimore Democrat and chairwoman of the committee assigned to the bill, said she favored amending it to specify that eligible students attend a Maryland high school for four years rather than the two that the original bill required.

The bill also required eligible students to agree to apply for legal residency and required that their parents have paid Maryland taxes for at least a year.

Advocates have said that many students who would be eligible are illegal immigrants through no fault of their own, having been brought to the United States by their parents. Without in-state tuition, students who had attended public schools would be unable to attend college, supporters said.

Out-of-state tuition at Maryland colleges is on average three times as much for local residents. Illegal immigrants are not eligible for state or federal financial aid.

Ten other states, including Texas, California and Kansas, have approved similar measures.

Opponents also pointed to the state's structural budget and said they feared that the bill would cost much more than the estimated $1.15 million by 2012, according to a report by legislative analysts.

Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, who spoke to high school students and other supporters of the bill last week, said he was hopeful that with Democrats in control of the legislative and executive branches, the bill would pass.

"It reinforces our collective opinion that higher education is not only good for the individual, but it's good for society," Brown said.

"So we shouldn't distinguish between children based on the status of their parents in this country."

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