House approves in-state tuition for illegal immigrants

Senate has approved similar legislation; governor supportive

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

The House of Delegates voted Friday to extend in-state college tuition to illegal immigrants — the highest hurdle so far for a plan that already has passed the Senate and has the backing of Gov. Martin O'Malley.

Undocumented students cheered the 74-66 vote, and embraced supportive lawmakers as they streamed out of the House chamber after hours of spirited debate.

Opponents said the tuition benefit could further stretch the state's diminished financial resources, and sends a message that it is OK to break the law.

Maryland would become the 11th state to enable qualifying immigrants to enroll in public colleges and universities at discounted rates. Under the legislation, 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, again paying the in-state rate.

The legislation now returns to the Senate, which could take it up on Saturday. The 2011 legislative session ends Monday night.

"It's very emotional," said Jennifer Miranda, a 23-year-old native of Guatemala who has lived in Baltimore County for eight years and wants to study law.

"I've been waiting patiently for years, and now just one more little step," she said. "This opens doors for me."

The legislation would save eligible students from $4,000 to $6,000 per 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.

Church leaders lined up behind the legislation. Some said they were able to win over African-American delegates by finding a common denominator in the fight against intolerance.

"It's not about what's legal, but what is just," said Bishop Douglas I. Miles, pastor of Koinonia Baptist Church in Northeast Baltimore and a member of Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development, among the most vocal groups in supporting the bill.

"We come out of generations that faced discrimination," Miles said. "We could not help but stand with the children of immigrants."

One of the most poignant moments of the day came when the normally silent Del. Hattie Harrison burst into tears.

The Baltimore Democrat spoke of dropping out of high school, and continuing her education only at her father's urging. She earned a doctorate two years ago.

"Ladies and gentlemen, what you're doing tonight is something you need to do," said Harrison, the oldest member of the chamber, as other delegates comforted her. "They need to be able to go to school. They need you. They need your help. It's a must what we're doing. The kids need the help."

About two dozen Democrats joined all of the Republicans in voting against the legislation, with many citing cost as the sticking point.

"This bill has merit," said Del. Dan Morhaim, a Baltimore County Democrat, but, "We don't have enough money."

Del. Brian McHale supported similar legislation in years past, but voted against the bill Friday.

"It's just a fiscal decision," the South Baltimore Democrat said. "My understanding is this is going to cost millions of dollars."

One fiscal analysis shows the legislation would cost about $800,000 in the first year. The cost would rise to $3.5 annually by 2016. Some believe the cost could be far higher.

Republicans expressed a philosophical opposition to the legislation.

Del. Steven Schuh called the legislation "one more ornament on a tree of benefits for those who break laws."

The Anne Arundel County Republican said such laws form "an irresistible package of benefits to lure" people across the borders.

Del. Herbert H. McMillan warned of what he called the "Field of Dreams" effect: "If you build it, they will come."

Maryland would join New York as the only East Coast state with a tuition benefit for illegal immigrants, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Some opponents say the break would thus draw illegal immigrants from surrounding states.

"I don't think Americans should have to compete with someone who came here illegally for a job," said McMillan, an Anne Arundel Republican.

The bill volleys back to the Senate, which voted 27-20 last month to approve an earlier version. Sen. Victor Ramirez, the bill's Senate sponsor, expressed cautious optimism that his colleagues will approve it.

"I'm confident, but nothing's certain," said the Prince George's County Democrat.

The House version requires male undocumented students to register for the Selective Service, and directs the state's public colleges and universities to bar illegal immigrants from taking spaces reserved for Maryland students.

Another difference emerged Friday over the requirement that an undocumented student show that his or her family has paid state taxes.

Del. Luiz R. S. Simmons crafted language to allow a student to convince school officials that relatives have a "serious and substantial reason" they are unable to pay taxes, for instance, because of illness.

Simmons, a Montgomery County Democrat, called the amendment "a modest safety valve."

Minority Leader Anthony J. O'Donnell said it is more like "a loophole" large enough to accommodate a Greyhound bus.

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