Students rejoice in tuition bill's passage

Assembly's approval of in-state college tuition for students, regardless of immigration status, gets cheers from adherents, boos from opponents

April 13, 2011|By Nick Madigan, The Baltimore Sun

When Missael, a young man from Hidalgo, Mexico, first set eyes on a college campus, he could barely contain himself.

"There was so much excitement," he said Wednesday, recalling the moment two years ago when he took a tour of the Johns Hopkins University's Homewood campus and sat in on a couple of classes in large, imposing lecture halls. "I said to myself, 'I want to be a part of this one day. I want to go through this experience.'"

Missael, who lives in East Baltimore, is one of thousands of students set to benefit from a bill approved this week by the Maryland General Assembly that extends them discounted rates at the state's colleges. Like other students interviewed for this article, he asked that his last name not be published because of his immigration status.

"Thanks to this law, I will have a chance," said Missael, who turns 21 next month and whose path to higher education was uncertain even without the challenge of paying for it. He said he had made some bad choices in his personal life, including getting involved in a street fight that left him badly injured. "I had bad friends — all the things you go through. We didn't have people around us who could say, 'You can do much better than this.'"

Despite his personal difficulties, Missael was in the top five of his graduating class at the Baltimore public high school he attended. Last fall, he enrolled in a community college but could afford to pay for only one class, and did so by selling candy in the Inner Harbor and working as a food runner in a restaurant, a job he still holds. He hopes to study business administration.

Other students, many of whom had urged passage of the bill in sessions of the General Assembly and at gatherings elsewhere, were equally enthusiastic. "Everybody is so glad, so happy about it," said Sarita, 19, a native of Cajamarca, Peru, who graduated with a 4.0 grade-point average from Digital Harbor High School in Baltimore and was a vocal advocate of the proposed law. "It just affects a lot of people. Everybody's so excited that they can go to school, or go back to school."

With scholarships, Sarita was able to attend a community college full time for two semesters, beginning in 2009. "It was all paid for," she said, but then the scholarships dried up and she was asked to come up with about $3,000 for the next semester. "It was too much. I'm still in school, but I'm only taking one class, and that's more than $500. It's heartbreaking to see so many students not be able to go to college because they can't afford it. I know a lot of people who got a job instead of going to college, when they had so much potential."

Sarita, the only child of two college graduates who brought her to the United States eight years ago specifically so that she could "get an education," she said, intends to major in business administration. But after her interview with The Baltimore Sun on Tuesday, she learned that the new law does not apply to students who entered community college before 2010, as she did, so that as it is currently written it will not benefit her. She did not return a telephone call seeking her reaction.

An official at CASA de Maryland, the state's largest immigrant-rights organization, gave Sarita the news and said she was "very sad."

CASA's executive director, Gustavo Torres, said in a statement issued by his office that passage of the tuition law represented a victory "many years in the making," a reference to the bill's tortuous path through the legislature. First introduced in 2002, the law was approved in 2003 and then vetoed by Republican Robert L. Ehrlich, Jr., who was the governor at the time. In 2007, a similar bill passed the Maryland House, only to stall in the Senate.

"Each year we waited, we were losing the talents of our next heart surgeons, social workers and teachers — skills and commitment that no state can afford to waste," Torres said. "But even more importantly, this passage illustrates that in Maryland we are committed to confronting the failed federal action on immigration and its accompanying civil rights crisis humanely, recognizing the basic dignity of immigrant families."

Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat, has said that he will sign the bill, which is more limited than previous versions. Students must attend three years of high school, their parents must pay state income taxes, and they must start at a community college. After two years, they can apply to one of the state's four-year universities.

Maryland is the 11th state to extend in-state college tuition breaks to illegal immigrants. It would save qualifying students up to $6,000 a year at a community college, according to a legislative analysis. At current rates, they would pay about $15,000 less than out-of-state students to attend the University of Maryland, College Park.

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