By JONATHAN N. CRAWFORD, Capital News Service
ANNAPOLIS - With a new governor in power who has pledged support for inclusive immigration policies, Maryland may join 10 other states in allowing illegal immigrants to qualify for in-state tuition rates at public colleges and universities.
Illegal immigrants who attend Maryland high schools for a minimum of two years could benefit as early as this fall if legislation is passed that would have the effect of reducing by more than half the out-of-state tuition they currently must pay. Cost savings for each student would average more than $8,000 per year. The bill would also require undocumented immigrants to seek permanent residency status.
Delegate Victor R. Ramirez, D-Prince George's, the bill's primary sponsor, said immigrants should be given a chance to succeed.
"The least we can do, if we're allowing people to cut our yards, wash our cars, clean our houses for probably very cheap wages, the least you can do is let their children have an opportunity - that's the American way," he said.
But Delegate Richard K. Impallaria, R-Baltimore County, a critic of the bill, said it was "the height of arrogance" for people in the country illegally to think they should be entitled to in-state tuition.
"The fact that they're going to school here without any repercussions should be good enough for them," he said.
In Texas, which instituted a similar bill in the fall of 2001, in-state tuition forms at public universities don't require proof of citizenship or legal residency as is currently required in Maryland.
A bill similar to Ramirez's was vetoed by then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. in 2003. But Ramirez believes the bill will again pass the General Assembly and this time, with a Democratic governor in office, be signed into law.
Ramirez said that Gov. Martin O'Malley told him he is familiar with the concept of his bill. "He (O'Malley) said he's inclined to sign it. So we feel optimistic that if we can get it to his desk that he'll sign it into law," said Ramirez.
According to a spokesman for O'Malley, Sasha Leonhardt, the governor supports expanded opportunities for immigrants but wants to see the final version of legislation before deciding whether to sign it.
Ramirez said that providing illegal immigrants more affordable education would pay dividends.
"We're the ones who are going to benefit because ultimately they're going to give back to society and become doctors, lawyers, scientists," he said.
Impallaria, on the other hand, said that the illegal immigrants would put an added financial strain on schools, drive-up tuition costs and reduce the number of available slots at public schools for legal residents.
"You're rewarding people for breaking the law. And what they should be doing is going to the immigration people, paying the higher tuition and saying, 'look, I want to be an American citizen.' That should be priority one," he said.
While the population of illegal immigrants in Maryland was last estimated to be around a quarter of a million in 2005, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, it's unclear how many illegal immigrants would take advantage of this new bill should it pass.
Ramirez estimates that only a few hundred immigrants would seek in-state tuition. He said most illegal immigrants wouldn't be able to afford college without federal financial aid. Ramirez added that most of those who would benefit would be the top academic achievers who came to the country at an early age.
According to Josh Bernstein, of the National Immigration Law Center, a similar bill, called the DREAM Act, is expected to be introduced on the federal level that would give illegal immigrants attending college a path toward citizenship.
Ramirez, who was born in El Salvador and obtained his U.S. citizenship when he was 17, said he was fortunate that he didn't have the financial hurdles that undocumented immigrants face. "I thank God I never had to experience anything like that. When my family came here, we were legal, as they want to say. But I know that that's not the case for a lot of people."