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Students, activists seek in-state tuition for immigrants

Dozens of supporters and opponents filled a Senate hearing room this afternoon as lawmakers heard testimony on a proposal  to give illegal immigrants in-state tuition rates at public universities.

The bill is sponsored by Sen. Victor Ramirez, a Prince George's County Democrat, and would extend the tuition offer only to students whose families pay taxes. A similar plan was approved in 2003 by the General Assembly, but vetoed by then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. Gov. Martin O'Malley has indicated that he would sign the bill.

"This legislation is about hope and about dreams," Ramirez said, testifying before his Senate colleagues. He noted that state residents pay about $8,600 per year to attend a public school like the University of Maryland, College Park, while out of state students pay about $25,000.

Supporters wore black T-shirts saying, "I am Maryland. Youth can DREAM," a reference to a failed recent attempt by President Barack Obama to provide a pathway to citizenship for young illegal immigrants through schooling or military service. Many opponents of Ramirez's bill were from a statewide anti-illegal immigrant group called Help Save Maryland. They wore stickers with a red strike across the name Casa de Maryland, a state-supported group that assists immigrants.

(Opponents and supporters pictured.)

Prince George's County Executive Rushern Baker is among those who support the in-state tuition plan. In written testimony, he said, "Maryland should be investing in all students who live and learn and contribute to our state, regardless of where they were born."

Blake Sutherland of Ridgely in Caroline County plans to testify against the measure, saying the state needs to do more to discourage and penalize illegal immigration. He was joined by about 30 others from Help Save Maryland in the Senate hearing room.

Questions of witnesses showed some senators on the Education, Health and Environment Committee have strong feelings on both sides of the issue. Sen. Joan Carter Conway, committee chairwoman, is a co-sponsor of the bill, while Sen. Bryan Simonaire asked rhetorically why legal U.S. citizens from other states should have to pay more for schooling than students who are illegally in the country.

Tune in here for a live-stream of the EHE hearing, likely to continue for hours. Among the first to testify were lobbyists and officials from K-12 and higher education groups, including the University System of Maryland.

Amid continued federal inaction, Maryland lawmakers are hearing testimony on dozens of immigrant-related bills this year.

"We're acting in Maryland," Ramirez said at the hearing Wednesday, "because federal action has been hindered." 

On Tuesday, Del. Pat McDonough, a Baltimore County Republican, is seeking to bar state colleges and universities from providing undocumented immigrants with in-state tuition rate, something currently done only by a Montgomery County community college. McDonough has introduced many related measures, including a bill that would require proof of lawful presence to collect public benefits.

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