In Md. Voters' Approval of Dream Act, Hope for Students and Sign for the Nation

Strong endorsement of the ballot measure was a rare public expression of support for illegal immigrants

Matt Roth for The Chronicle

Martin O'Malley, governor of Maryland, spoke to supporters of his state's Dream Act on Tuesday night in Baltimore. The governor signed the act in 2011, but opponents put it to a referendum.
November 06, 2012

Arcos Restaurant, in the Fells Point neighborhood, was abuzz Tuesday night as the Maryland Dream Act was approved with 58 percent of the vote in a referendum, making Maryland the 13th state with a law granting certain undocumented students access to in-state tuition at state colleges.

"This is a momentous victory," said Gustavo Torres, executive director of Casa de Maryland, a community immigration-advocacy group, who celebrated with scores of students and supporters at Arcos. "Voters today recognized the vital contributions talented young people, regardless of immigration status, are making to our state."

Students, activists, community leaders, and other members of Educating Maryland Kids, a coalition that pushed for approval of the legislation, shared their excitement with Gov. Martin O'Malley and the mayor of Baltimore, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, both Democrats, shortly after the unofficial win was announced.

"The more that we do to make the dream of a college education a real opportunity for every child in Maryland, the stronger that makes Maryland," Mr. O'Malley said in the restaurant's courtyard, which was filled to capacity with supporters and reporters.

After Mr. O'Malley signed the legislation, in May, a petition drive by opponents put the law to a vote on the ballot, where it appeared on Tuesday as Question 4.

In response, organizers in support of the Dream Act built a diverse coalition that included immigration advocates, labor unions, and civil-rights, education, and faith-based groups, and ran a robust campaign that culminated on Tuesday evening.

Road to Further Changes

Immigration-reform advocates don't see Question 4 as an end in itself but instead as an important step on the road to further changes in immigration policy. They hope that the Maryland Dream Act, by virtue of being the first legislation of its kind to be approved by popular vote, will resound beyond Maryland's borders, in other states and on the national level.

At the last pre-election rally organized by Educating Maryland Kids, held on November 5 at Montgomery College in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C., one speaker was Joel C. Sati, a 19-year-old undocumented student at the college. Referring in an interview to the stalled federal version of the Dream Act, Mr. Sati said, "If we have enough states that pass Dream Act laws, it's going to reach the sort of critical mass at which, maybe at the federal level, people will start saying, OK, let's have a national conversation about this, let's actually get this done."

The vote to uphold the Maryland Dream Act followed a campaign that saw the presidential candidates of both major parties vow to "get it done" by overhauling the nation's immigration laws. President Obama's administration granted some young illegal immigrants temporary protection from deportation.

"I'm hopeful the next Congress is going to pass comprehensive immigration reform, and I think the Dream Act will be part of it," said U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat and a sponsor of federal Dream Act legislation, after his remarks at a pro-Question 4 youth event in Baltimore on November 4. "If we can't get comprehensive, then we're going to continue to try to get the Dream Act passed as a stand-alone bill."

Only time will tell if this year's campaign promises become reality. The federal Dream Act has been introduced repeatedly in Congress since 2001. The federal bill was recently reintroduced after failing to pass in 2010.

Advocates also anticipate that Maryland's Dream Act could set a precedent that other states could follow in their own laws. Popular support for the Maryland law "would show that the majority of people that actually have a vote are in favor of this type of legislation," said José Aguiluz, a student leader with Casa de Maryland at Montgomery College. "It would be like a blueprint."

Getting the Bill Passed

Compromises had to be struck in order to get the bill passed, said Sheila E. Hixson, a longtime Democratic member of the Maryland House of Delegates, who first introduced the legislation in 2002. A number of constituencies in the state expressed concern over the ramifications of the bill, Ms. Hixson said after the Montgomery College rally, and the authors of the bill "needed to cover everybody's anxiety and concerns."

Among the critics' biggest worries was whether Dream Act-eligible students would end up taking spots from citizens and permament residents at the state's universities and whether their parents were taxpayers.

The result of the legislative push and pull is an in-state tuition law that has the strictest provisions of any tuition-equity statute on the books, including those in 12 other states, said Kristin E. Ford, communications director for Educating Maryland Kids.

In order to qualify for in-state tuition, undocumented students must have spent at least three years in a Maryland high school and earned a diploma or the equivalent, signed an affidavit affirming that they plan to apply for permanent residency, and, if applicable, registered with the Selective Service System. In addition, their parents must have filed at least three years of state income-tax returns.

The law requires the students to earn 60 credits at one of Maryland's community colleges before transferring to a four-year institution, and stipulates that while they will pay in-state rates, they will count as nonresidents in the admissions process.

"Certainly one of the reasons we have such broad support is tied to the taxpaying requirement of the bill," said Ms. Ford. "It means that the law only applies to those who have already been paying into the system."

Opponents of the Maryland Dream Act, who include activists united in an organization called Help Save Maryland and a number of Republican lawmakers, argued that even though the law requires students' parents to have filed taxes, it does not mean that they paid taxes.

In a statement released before the election, Help Save Maryland said that the law "benefits only students who are illegal aliens and does so via taxpayer-funded tuition breaks," and displaces out-of-state American students and international students, forcing Maryland taxpayers to "subsidize the difference."

College Support

Maryland colleges and universities overwhelmingly came out in favor of the Dream Act. All three University of Maryland college presidents wrote op-eds in support of the legislation, and it won endorsements from the Maryland Association of Community Colleges and individual colleges.

"We really see this as an education issue rather than an immigration issue," said Ms. Ford, adding that the Dream Act dovetailed with national concerns about college access and affordability.

After the November 5 rally, DeRionne R. Pollard, president of Montgomery College, said that a college education would be "cost-prohibitive for already at-risk populations" if the legislation weren't approved. Montgomery College has offered in-county rates for every county high-school graduate, regardless of status, for more than a decade, and formalized the policy two years ago.

The National Immigration Law Center estimates that only about 5 to 10 percent of undocumented high-school graduates go on to college, compared with about 75 percent of their documented peers. Meanwhile, a recent study of the Dream Act by the Maryland Institute for Policy Analysis and Research at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County estimated that about 435 students annually would take advantage of the Dream Act to attend college.

While the projected number is small, the difference that the law will make in tuition rates for students is substantial. At the University of Maryland at College Park, in-state tuition, including fees, is $8,909 for the 2012-13 academic year. Out-of-state tuition is triple that, at $27,288.

Jonathan J. Green, who is attending Goucher University instead of the University of Maryland only because Goucher offered him a hefty scholarship, said "there are hundreds of Maryland students like me hoping for a chance at succeeding in life."

"The Maryland Dream Act is fair," he said, "because it gives young Marylanders like me who come from taxpaying families a shot at higher education."

Correction (11/8/2012, 11;30 a.m.): The original version of this article said the Maryland Dream Act was passed with 59 percent of the vote. The act passed 58 percent to 42 percent. This article has been updated to reflect that.

Correction (1/22/2013, 6:38 p.m.): This article originally misstated the nature of President Obama's decision last year to defer efforts to deport students who are in the United States illegally. The action was technically a directive from the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, not an executive order by the president. The article has been updated to reflect this correction.