Delegates to debate in-state tuition for illegal immigrants

Measure has support of Senate, O'Malley

April 05, 2011|By Julie Bykowicz, The Baltimore Sun

The House of Delegates is poised to take up legislation Wednesday to extend the in-state tuition discount to illegal immigrants — a divisive issue likely to produce one last lengthy and emotional debate in the waning days of the 2011 General Assembly session.

Under the proposal, an undocumented student who attended at least three years of high school in Maryland and whose parents have paid state taxes would qualify for in-state tuition rates at a community college. After completing two years, he or she could transfer to a four-year institution and again pay the in-state rate.

The Senate approved a similar measure last month, and Gov. Martin O'Malley has said he will sign a bill into law if one reaches his desk.

In a likely preview of the floor debate Wednesday, lawmakers dabbed at tears and shared family stories Tuesday before the House Ways and Means Committee vote.

Del. Andrew A. Serafini talked about his grandfather, an Italian immigrant coal miner who struggled with alcoholism. The Washington County Republican said his father had to work hard to put himself through school.

"This is the land of opportunity, not the land of entitlement," Serafini said before voting against the bill.

Del. Eric G. Luedtke, a middle school teacher, recounted a story of seeing three honor students in tears one day because the mother of one of them had been detained by immigration authorities.

"They didn't understand what was happening," the Montgomery County Democrat said.

Explaining why he would vote for the bill, he said, "We are talking about children. They didn't make the decision to cross the border."

Students from Baltimore City and Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties are planning to watch the debate Wednesday, said Kim Propeack, organizing director at the immigrant advocacy group Casa de Maryland.

"They want to be there for a core moment in their struggle for civil rights," she said.

Del. Justin Ross, a member of the Ways and Means Committee and chief deputy majority whip, predicted that the tuition bill will gain final passage.

"We're optimistic that we have the votes," said the Prince George's County Democrat, who supports the bill. "Otherwise, we wouldn't have voted it out of committee."

The committee made several changes to the bill approved by the Senate. Amendments would require undocumented men to register with the Selective Service, like their American counterparts, and would count the undocumented students as out-of-state students for admission purposes to avoid displacing other Maryland residents.

Sen. Victor Ramirez, who sponsored the bill in the Senate, said he is hopeful about the legislation's chances in the House. The Prince George's County Democrat said he doesn't see the proposed changes as harmful.

"As long as we are treating all high school graduates the same, I'm comfortable with it," Ramirez said.

Propeack said she is confident the chambers can work out their differences before the end of the session.

The bill lurched forward Tuesday after a weeks-long long pause in which advocates grew nervous that it would die.

A prolonged, intense debate on whether to legalize same-sex marriage — which ended with House leaders sending the bill backward to languish in a committee — sapped energy from other controversial bills, several delegates said.

Del. Ana Sol Gutierrez, a chief proponent of the in-state tuition measure in the House, said soon after the marriage debate that delegates needed time to "regroup" and "heal."

The Ways and Means Committee approved the bill on a party-line vote of 14-7. Del. Jon Cardin, a Baltimore County Democrat, abstained from voting, citing concerns about how the measure could affect the beleaguered state budget.

Legislative analysts estimate that the bill would cost the state about $800,000 next year. The tab could grow to $3.5 million by 2016, according to the analysis.

The bill would save qualifying students from $4,000 to $6,000 a year at community college, according to a legislative analysis. For those who go on to a four-year institution, the savings would increase. In-state tuition at the University of Maryland, College Park this year is $8,655; nonresidents pay $25,795.

The General Assembly passed similar legislation in 2003, but it was vetoed by then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican. Ten states give illegal immigrants access to in-state tuition rates.

Montgomery College, a two-year school, appears to be the only public institution in Maryland that allows undocumented students to pay in-state rates. Three Montgomery County residents sued this year to change the policy.

Republicans raised several concerns at the Ways and Means hearing.

"We're investing taxpayer dollars in people who may not ever legally be able to work in our state," said Del. Kathy Afzali, a Frederick County Republican.

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