Immigrant Students Win DREAM Act in Maryland but Face Opposition Elsewhere
By Daniel C. Vock, Staff Writer
Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley has a controversial bill on his desk right now very similar to one vetoed by his predecessor eight years ago. When he signs it, as he has promised to do, he will thrust Maryland into the center of the national debate over immigration.
The legislation, which supporters call the Maryland DREAM Act, offers in-state college tuition to students who were brought into the country illegally as minors but who have since graduated from state high schools. Maryland would become the 11th state to offer tuition assistance to undocumented students.
States have been legislating on the immigrant student question all over the country this year, but they have been going in different directions. It has been "active and in flux with no clear trend," says Dan Hurley, the director of state relations for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities . The rush of state activity, he says, "affirms the need and benefit for federal policy clarification or congressional action on this issue."
For years, the question of unauthorized immigrants in higher education has been on the back burner in most state capitols. Advocates for the immigrants generally have set their sights on Washington, where they hoped Congress would pass the federal DREAM Act, granting citizenship to undocumented students who went to college or served in the military.
But the DREAM Act failed in the U.S. Senate by a handful of votes last December, and the chances of it coming up again dropped dramatically with the Republican takeover of the U.S. House this January. Some of the energy previously directed toward the federal government has now been channeled to the state level.
Already this year:
- Eight students — including several in the country illegally — were arrested in Atlanta while protesting a decision by Georgia's Board of Regents to bar undocumented immigrants from attending the state's top five universities. (Alabama, South Carolina and Virginia already ban them from some or all public colleges.) When Georgia's new policy takes effect later in the year, its impact could be small. University officials say that the affected schools had a total of only 27 undocumented students enrolled last fall.
- Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has proposed rolling back his state's policy of letting undocumented students qualify for in-state tuition. Wisconsin added the benefit in 2009. So far, Oklahoma is the only state to have rescinded a similar benefit.
- The Colorado Senate, controlled by Democrats, passed an in-state tuition bill favoring immigrants on a party-line vote. It faces an iffy future in the Republican-held House.
- Attempts to repeal in-state tuition benefits for illegal immigrants have failed in Kansas and Texas.
- Lawmakers in California and Illinois are considering making undocumented students eligible for financial aid.
The fight over the federal DREAM Act encouraged dozens of undocumented students to reveal their status publicly. Many now are becoming vocal on the state level.
That was one of the biggest changes this year in Maryland, says Helen Melton, who pushed for in-state tuition rights on behalf of the immigrant advocacy group Casa de Maryland . "The students," she says, "came out to support the bill just about every time something important was happening." Many of those who spoke up were honor students in high school. When they told elected officials about their struggles to afford a college education, it was "really powerful," Melton says.
Nationally, an informal network of unauthorized students has helped coordinate such advocacy campaigns. The spokesman for DREAMActivist.org , an undocumented student in Florida who goes only by his first name of Juan, explains the immigrants' state-level advocacy in long-range terms. "Maybe the (federal) DREAM Act won't be around the corner for this year or before the elections," he says, "but it's bills like these that give people hope."
Those who oppose tuition breaks for the undocumented, such as Thomas Fitton, president of the conservative group Judicial Watch , say that such optimism is unwarranted. Fitton argues that Maryland is an outlier, and that most states will be moving in the opposite direction, in favor of tightening admissions criteria.
Whatever most states do, there is no escaping the fact that without changes in federal law, college degrees will not help unauthorized immigrants find jobs in the United States. They will be unable to obtain legal work permits. Many continue to hold out hope that, despite the current absence of federal momentum, Congress will eventually change that policy.
In the meantime, Juan says, earning his own degree is part of his larger fight for access to education and immigrant rights. "It's just going to be another medal on my chest just to prove that, with hard work and determination, you are able to accomplish your dreams," he says. "At least I will be able to inspire others to set forth on the same path."
Immigrant advocates such as Melton, the advocate from Casa de Maryland, point to tangible benefits from legislation of the kind Maryland is about to enact. Some of the benefits, she says, would accrue to the state. The student's parents would have to pay income taxes, thus bringing in more public revenue. Universities would also gain students — and tuition money, too — because some of those admitted under the new law would otherwise lack the funds for higher education and thus contribute no tuition at all.
The law requires undocumented students to attend community college before going to a four-year institution. They would get in-state tuition but be counted as out-of-state for the purpose of complying with Maryland law requiring that 70 percent of all undergraduates be in-state. The University System of Maryland supported the legislation O'Malley is about to sign.
The larger issue is already in court. Judicial Watch has sued Montgomery College, a community college in Maryland, for offering in-state tuition to illegal immigrants in the absence of explicit state authorization. Judicial Watch also sent a letter to County College of Morris in New Jersey, which had started granting a tuition subsidy to illegal immigrants but which backed off its two-month-old policy.
Maryland state Delegate Patrick McDonough, a Republican, was involved with the Montgomery College lawsuit. He is threatening another one to invalidate the soon-to-be-signed state law.
Previous lawsuits challenging in-state tuition benefits have gained little traction. Last November, the California Supreme Court upheld that state's benefits for immigrants. McDonough insists, however, that the Maryland law is particularly vulnerable to arguments that the state is intruding on federal powers.
He also wants to put the law before voters in a referendum, which would appear on the ballot in November 2012. The signature requirements for a referendum in Maryland are tough, McDonough says, but if the drive qualifies, the law would be put on hold for more than a year before voters decided on it. He is confident that voters would reject the new law. He says opposition is especially strong among blacks, judging by their response to his talk radio show in the Baltimore area.
"In my 30 years in public life, as a legislator and a commentator on radio and television," he says, "I have never witnessed the level of rage and anger by the general public, both Democrat and Republican, over the passage of this bill."
But Dan Hurley, of the universities association, believes the in-state tuition laws will win public acceptance, especially when citizens consider the fact that most of the students at issue were raised as Americans. "These young adults are not going back to their homeland, OK?" he says. "They're not."