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Immigrant tuition bill can go to referendum, judge rules

Voters will decide in November if they want to allow in-state tuition for some illegal immigrants at Maryland's public colleges and universities, an Anne Arundel County judge ruled Friday.

Circuit Judge Ronald A. Silkworth rejected arguments by immigrant advocacy group Casa de Maryland and others that the law adopted by the General Assembly last year cannot be the subject of a referendum. The group's attorneys had argued that the law was an appropriations measure and therefore could not be put before voters.

"I said from the beginning that they had a frivolous lawsuit and we would prevail," said Del. Patrick L. McDonough, a Republican representing parts of Baltimore and Harford counties and an outspoken critic of illegal immigration.

He said advocates hoping to overturn the measure have begun planning their campaign and that he expects "vigorous" opposition from CASA and others who want to see the law take effect.

The law, which has been suspended pending the referendum, would provide undocumented students with the same in-state tuition discounts enjoyed by legal residents. To be eligible, those students would have to attend three years of high school in Maryland and show that their parents had filed tax returns to the state.

Silkworth's decision, which said the measure did not make an appropriation and had "a primary goal to change eligibility requirements for students to receive in-state tuition rates," probably will not end the legal dispute on the referendum.

"Together with our attorneys, we are still reviewing today's decision, but we are likely to appeal," said Kim Propeack, director of political action at Casa de Maryland.

Joseph E. Sandler, who headed the legal team trying to block a referendum, said he had not yet reviewed the 15-page ruling.

Days after Gov. Martin O'Malley signed the bill into law last April, Del. Neil C. Parrott, a Washington County Republican, put down about $5,000 of his own money to spearhead a petition drive for a referendum in hopes that voters would overturn the measure. The petition campaign gathered nearly twice the number of signatures required to place the measure on the November ballot.

Legislation passed by the Assembly has not made it to the ballot since 1992, when opponents tried to overturn a measure affirming a woman's right to abortion. Maryland voters upheld the law.

andrea.siegel@baltsun.com

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