ANNAPOLIS, Md. – Illegal immigrants who meet certain conditions will be able to pay in-state college tuition in Maryland under a bill signed Tuesday by Gov. Martin O’Malley at a time when many other states are taking a harder stance against illegal immigration.
The Democratic governor posed for five sets of photographs during a ceremony to accommodate the large number of supporters in attendance to see one of the high-profile bills signed.
“This will allow us to have a more highly educated workforce in our state,” O’Malley said, during a bill-signing ceremony where he signed scores of other measures.
Supporters cheered the occasion outside the Maryland State House, chanting “Yes, we can,” and “U-S-A!”
Jerry Torres, a 19-year-old who has been following the legislation this year as a member of an immigrant service group in the Washington suburbs called CASA de Maryland, praised the law.
“I’m a legal resident, but I’m doing it for other people, like my friends and some people in my family,” Torres, of Silver Spring, said.
The measure allows undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition rates at public colleges if they complete two years at a community college. Students also will have to show that their parents paid state income taxes. Male students also will be required to sign up for Selective Service to be eligible for the draft.
Republican opponents are leading a petition drive in hopes of overturning the legislation in a 2012 referendum. Opponents have until May 31 to submit one-third of the 55,700 signatures needed to put the measure on next year’s ballot. The rest are due June 30. The bill is set to take effect June 30.
Republican Delegate Patrick McDonough, one of the Maryland General Assembly’s leading critics of illegal immigration, said taxpayers are wasting millions on educating people who cannot legally be hired in the state. McDonough, who represents parts of Baltimore and Harford counties, said Maryland is being turned into a “sanctuary state” for undocumented immigrants.
“This law will only make things worse,” McDonough said.
Gustavo Torres, executive director of Casa de Maryland, said that, even if opponents succeed in the difficult task of collecting enough signatures for the referendum, he is confident Maryland voters would not overturn the legislation.
“This is about education,” Torres said. “Our people know exactly how education is so important for the families, not only for some families but for everybody.”
The legislation was one of the most high-profile bills in Maryland’s legislative session, which ended in April. Debate in the House of Delegates became so heated at times that House Speaker Michael Busch paused to ask everyone to “take a deep breath” during debate.
Since 2001, 10 states have enacted laws to allow undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition rates at public universities. They are California, Illinois, Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah and Washington. However, many states are now cracking down on illegal immigration following Republican gains in November.
The Maryland bill includes a provision that requires undocumented immigrants receiving the reduced tuition rate to count as a part of the school’s out-of-state student pool, so in-state student slots for Maryland residents won’t be affected.
Sen. Victor Ramirez, a Prince George’s County Democrat and bill sponsor who immigrated legally as a child from El Salvador, said the bill will help people who came to the United States as young people and whose parents have been contributing members of the state for years.
“There’s not a free ride,” said Ramirez. “It’s not displacing anybody. It’s about education. It’s not about immigration.”