Conservative activists trying to repeal a state law that grants college education discounts to illegal immigrants have met a preliminary goal to keep their efforts on track, the State Board of Elections reported Tuesday.
State officials validated 21,919 of the signatures the group submitted last month, well above the number needed to keep their initiative alive. The number could grow as officials continue sorting through tens of thousands more on the group's initial petition.
Activists have until the end of this month to continue collecting names. They must reach 55,736 valid signatures for the measure to go on the 2012 ballot.
"I've been very busy," said Republican Del. Neil C. Parrott, a freshman lawmaker who won his Washington County seat last year with tea party support. "We are in an all-out sprint now."
Parrott, who is leading the repeal effort, organized a sophisticated Web-based operation that uses a voter registration database to cross-check names and addresses submitted online. The result has been an extraordinarily low number of invalid signatures, he said.
Parrott also credited the efforts of fellow Republican Del. Patrick McDonough, an outspoken Baltimore County conservative, who has used his radio show to spread the word about the petition.
Supporters of the legislation are taking notice. Victor Ramirez, a freshman senator who sponsored the bill, said that he's re-activating the coalition of church leaders and immigration-rights groups who helped him push the legislation through the General Assembly.
"We are going to put up a fight," said Ramirez, a Democrat from Prince George's County.
The legislation had the support of Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and passed on the final day of the 2011 legislative session after weeks of robust debate.
It extends in-state tuition to illegal immigrants who have lived in Maryland for three years and paid taxes. Students must start at community colleges, but could transfer to four-year institutions like the University of Maryland after acquiring 60 credits.
The law was written to take effect July 1 so illegal immigrants could enroll in the academic year that begins in September. If opponents gather enough signatures, the law will be suspended pending the outcome of the 2012 ballot initiative.