By ELLEN FISHEL
ANNAPOLIS—While many young undocumented immigrants in Maryland are optimistic they will soon get a chance to afford higher education if the DREAM Act passes, their counterparts just miles away in Northern Virginia have no tangible measure to hope for.
If their neighbors get a break on tuition, relocating across state lines may be an option for immigrant families in Northern Virginia, where undocumented immigrants must pay upwards of $30,000 a year in out-of-state tuition at public colleges.
A spokesman at the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington said it's difficult to generalize the effect the act's passage will have on the immigrant population. But while it's unlikely there would be a drastic population shift, some people "on the margins" could decide to relocate to take advantage of lower tuition costs.
"It's possible since we're only divided by a state line that someone would move to Maryland even if they worked in Virginia," said Bryan Griffith, a spokesman for the Center for Immigration Studies, a nonpartisan, nonprofit research organization. "It's not going to have any more effect than it would a legal citizen or resident who's offered a discount on college."
Steven Camarota, the center's director of research, estimated it would attract no more than a few thousand people from neighboring Virginia.
"I would be hard pressed to think it would be anything more than that," he said. "It could be significant for Maryland taxpayers, but it's not likely to add tens of thousands of people to Maryland's illegal population."
The Maryland DREAM Act would allow undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition at state universities, provided they graduate from a state high school and complete 60 credits at a state community college. Their parents must have also paid state income tax for at least three years to be eligible.
Gov. Martin O'Malley signed the DREAM Act into law in May, but opponents gathered enough signatures to put the issue to a referendum in November. A similar measure has been introduced in the Virginia House of Delegates but did not pass in the most recent legislative session.
According to Census data analyzed by the Center for Immigration Studies, the estimated number of illegal immigrants is nearly equal in Maryland and Virginia: 246,000 and 238,000, respectively. In both states, illegal immigrants make up 27 percent of the total immigrant population.
Griffith said there are several factors at play complicating an undocumented immigrant family's decision to pick up and move, such as property values, commute time and quality of school districts.
"It's a question we are wondering: What's going to happen?" said Edgar Aranda-Yanoc, chair of the Virginia Coalition of Latino Organizations. "But it's very difficult for many people who have jobs here, and they don't want to move to Maryland if they have jobs here."
Founder and board member of the coalition Leni Gonzalez said the bill's strict requirements will make it unlikely for Northern Virginian undocumented students to move to Maryland solely because the act passes.
"It would have to be very far in the future," she said. "If we had to quantify that, we have no idea."
A recent University of Maryland, Baltimore County study on the costs and benefits of the DREAM Act said the state could face an increased financial burden if it becomes a destination of choice for undocumented immigrants. However, it concludes the DREAM Act will not necessarily cause this to happen.
"There is little empirical evidence that undocumented immigrants are attracted to states and localities with more generous public benefits," the study states.
Griffith also said it is unlikely for Maryland to become a beacon for undocumented immigrants because of the complicated nature of immigration.
"People like to talk about immigration in sweeping generalizations," Griffith said. "People don't wake up in South America one day and say 'I want to move to Hoboken.'"
But Delegate Neil Parrott, R-Washington County, who spearheaded the petition to get the DREAM Act up for referendum, disagrees.
"It makes Maryland a magnet for illegal aliens to come to the state," he said.
At organizations like Ayuda, a nonprofit, direct-services organization for immigrants in the D.C. metro area, the passage of the DREAM Act would not drastically change the way services are offered, Executive Director Jaime Sarrant said.
"We're not going to be telling people, 'you should move to Maryland,'" he said.
The benefits and drawbacks of relocating to Maryland would have to be considered on a case-by-case basis, Sarrant added.
Virginia Delegate Alfonso Lopez, who introduced the DREAM Act legislation in his state last session, has pledged to continue to sponsor the bill until it becomes law. For Gonzalez, it is important immigration advocates in Virginia continue to focus on their own state and national fight.
"We need to keep working to support Delegate Lopez," Gonzalez said. "We don't know how easy it's going to be, but hopefully it will change."
Aranda-Yanoc said he thinks the success of the DREAM Act in Maryland would help galvanize similar campaigns in Virginia.
"The DREAMers will be energized. It's a new element to use to talk with our legislators," he said. "With that argument, I think we have a better chance to pass (the DREAM Act) in Virginia."