House begins in-state tuition debate

Undocumented students could pay lower rates under plan passed by Senate

April 08, 2011|By Julie Bykowicz, The Baltimore Sun

There was much discussion but little in the way of fireworks Thursday as delegates opened the floor debate over controversial legislation to extend in-state tuition discounts to illegal immigrants at the state's public colleges and universities.

The proposal, which has already passed the Senate, is scheduled for final consideration Friday morning in the House of Delegates. Gov. Martin O'Malley has said he would sign the bill if it reaches his desk.

Thursday's discussion remained relatively technical, with 13 amendments offered and rejected as opponents unsuccessfully tried to chip away at the bill.

Del. Michael D. Smigiel characterized the debate as "a difference in policies and principles."

"Some of us want a bigger tent," said the Eastern Shore Republican, who opposes the tuition bill. "Some of us believe that we do something to our society when the word 'illegal' no longer means illegal."

Undocumented students who would benefit from the legislation — as well as immigrant advocates and supportive clergy from Baltimore, Montgomery County and elsewhere — listened from the House galleries. A larger group is planning to attend Friday, activists said.

Republican members raised questions about how much the plan would cost.

One fiscal analysis shows the state would pay about $800,000 next year in state aid to community colleges, a cost that would rise to about $3.5 million by 2016. Colleges and universities have said they can absorb a bump in enrollment without raising tuition, and bill advocates said other states that provide in-state tuition to illegal immigrants counted such students as about 1 percent of their enrollment population.

Del. Anne Kaiser, who led the floor debate on the bill, said the cost should be weighed against the benefits of educating all Marylanders.

"Many of us believe this should be a priority," said the Montgomery County Democrat. "There's room for everyone who wants an education."

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 the in-state tuition rate 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 bill would save qualifying students from $4,000 to $6,000 a year at a 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.

Advocates said students who would benefit from the lower tuition rates often were brought illegally to the country as young children and know no other place as home.

"You shouldn't punish students about a decision their parents made," Kaiser said.

Opponents had a different take.

"They come here to game the system," said Del. Richard K. Impallaria. The Republican, who represents Baltimore and Harford counties, said students who'd lobbied him on the bill had made the choice to come to America illegally to live with aunts and uncles while their parents remained in their native land.

"It seems very unfair and very unbalanced," he said. He said the schools are already "overcrowded."

At least 10 other states give illegal immigrants access to in-state tuition rates. Kaiser said Maryland's plan would be "the most arduous in the country" — none of the other states, she said, call for proof of taxes paid and three years of attendance at state high schools.

States are required to provide kindergarten through 12th-grade education to residents regardless of immigration status. Kaiser said many illegal immigrants pay taxes. In Maryland, more than 36,000 people have registered tax identification numbers, which do not require Social Security numbers, she said, and many of them are likely to be illegal immigrants.

The General Assembly passed similar tuition legislation in 2003, but it was vetoed by then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican.

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