By TAYA FLORES, Capital News Service
ANNAPOLIS - Immigrant advocates and high school students went before a House committee Tuesday to describe how illegal immigrants who live in Maryland are unable to go to college here because they are not allowed the lower tuition rates available to in-state students.
Undocumented immigrants are considered nonresidents of the state for tuition purposes because of their inability to establish legal residency.
"We're talking about children," Delegate Victor Ramirez, D-Prince George's County, sponsor of a bill to allow illegal immigrants to pay the in-state tuition at public colleges and universities. "It's not their fault and you shouldn't punish them. We should try to assimilate them to mainstream society and education is the way to do that."
If enacted the bill would change the requirements needed to obtain in-state-tuition rates. Prospective students would not have to provide a social security number but they would have to show that they attended a public or private high school in Maryland for at least two years and received a high school diploma or its equivalent within the state.
The applicants also have to prove that they are trying to obtain permanent residency status, which is the first step to becoming a legal citizen for foreign born residents.
Similar legislation passed the General Assembly in 2003 but was vetoed by then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich. The bill is considered to have a good chance of passing once again, but not without controversy.
This very issue sent Sen. Roy P. Dyson (D-29) and Delegate John Bohanan (D-29B) scurrying for cover during the 2006 election when Republicans sent out mass mailings to voters pointing out both politician's record of having voted in favor of similar bills in the past. Despite the employment of this wedge issue, both men comfortably defeated their Republican challengers.
Delegate Nancy King, D-Montgomery County, a member of the House Ways and Means Committee, which heard the bill, said she was sold on the legislation.
"I supported this bill last time and I'm supporting it this time," King said.
The stories that witnesses before the committee told seemed to move Delegate Ron George, R-Anne Arundel County, as well.
"I am a grandson of immigrants from Italy and I know the struggle they went through," he said. "I have it deep in my heart for how hard immigrants work when they come here."
Still, he asked if allowing illegal immigrants spots in colleges would turn away students who are legal - a line of questioning that brought criticism from other delegates.
Delegate Craig Rice, D-Montgomery County, said that George's question resembled the historical argument for not allowing blacks or women to attend colleges.
The bill would make it easier for all students who have attended and graduated from a state high school to pay cheaper in-state tuition rates at Maryland public colleges and universities regardless of their residency status.
Tuition for out-of-state students at the University of Maryland College Park is three times that for in-state students. The University of Maryland's in-state tuition rate is $7,969 and out-of-state tuition is $22,208. But, Ramirez said that this bill will most likely affect enrollment at community colleges where the illegal immigrants are most likely to attend. At Montgomery College in-state tuition is $3,708 and out-of-state is $9,612 per year.