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Students celebrate approval of Maryland Dream Act

ElectionsJustice SystemIllegal ImmigrantsDREAM ActImmigration

The mood was celebratory Tuesday night at Arcos Restaurant in Fells Point, where the Dreamers — students brought to the United States illegally as children, who now want to pursue higher education here — won their battle for in-state tuition breaks at the state's public colleges and universities.

"This means so much to me, my parents and my family — who are the other dreamers," Nathaly Uribe, a senior at Glen Burnie High School who was 2 when her parents brought her from Chile, said while keeping an eye on election results at the Mexican restaurant on South Broadway. "This will give all of us a chance."

The Maryland Dream Act, which will extend the tuition break to some illegal immigrants who graduate from high school in Maryland, was one of several ballot questions before state voters.

Marylanders also approved the congressional map drawn by Gov. Martin O'Malley and Democratic lawmakers in Annapolis after the 2010 census.

The map made the Western Maryland district long held by Republican Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett more Democratic, allowing Potomac banker John Delaney to defeat the 10-term incumbent Tuesday and turn the state a deeper shade of blue.

In other ballot questions, voters agreed to amend the Maryland Constitution to require that Orphans' Court judges in Prince George's and Baltimore counties be lawyers, and to force elected officials convicted of serious crimes to leave office immediately rather than wait for sentencing.

Supporters of the Dream Act, which included the immigrant advocacy group CASA de Maryland, the Catholic Church and several unions, said the tuition breaks would help young people who were brought here by others to become contributing members of society.

In results from last week's early voting, posted after the polls closed, Marylanders favored the tuition breaks by nearly 2-1. As Election Day results were added, the margin widened.

"This is going to be a tremendous affirmation of the goodness of the people of our state," O'Malley told students and their supporters at Arcos Restaurant before the final results were in. "The people of our state who understand that we are all in this together. That we are one."

Legislative analysts estimate that the measure would cost Maryland $3.5 million per year. But some researchers say the students will get better jobs if they go to college and eventually pay millions more in taxes.

Carolyn Badders, a 25-year-old mother of two, said she was eager to vote for the tuition breaks.

"Education is important to me," Badders said after casting her ballot at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt. "These kids deserve an opportunity to learn, and it will benefit all of us."

Opponents, who gathered thousands of signatures to petition the law to referendum, argued the state should not be creating programs that benefit students who shouldn't be here. They say the tuition benefit would help draw more illegal immigrants to Maryland, where they would use costly services.

At Eutaw-Marshburn Elementary School in Baltimore's Bolton Hill, Donald Dukes and his daughter Kelly disagreed about the Dream Act.

"I believe everyone has a right to an education," Kelly said.

"As long as they're legal," her father interjected. "We need to have people following the laws."

To qualify for in-state tuition, students have to have been brought to the United States as children, have attended at least three years of high school in Maryland, and come from families that have filed state tax returns, among other requirements.

The proposal was approved last year by the General Assembly and signed into law by O'Malley. But opponents, led by Republican Del. Neil Parrott of Hagerstown, mounted the state's first successful petition drive in two decades, gathering more than 100,000 signatures to suspend the law and let the voters decide.

The website Parrott set up to fight the Dream Act, mdpetitions.com, helped gather the signatures — and proved itself a powerful new tool for minority Republicans in deep blue Maryland.

Parrott used the website again this year to help put same-sex marriage and the new congressional map on the ballot.

Democratic lawmakers redrew the congressional map to give their party a chance at defeating Bartlett and gaining a seventh House seat. The challenge by Delaney made the race in the Sixth District the most competitive in the state.

A federal judge called the map a "blatant political gerrymander," but ruled that it was not illegal.

The amendment to remove officeholders when they are convicted will close a loophole that has allowed guilty politicians to remain in office until sentencing, which can take months.

That loophole allowed Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon to remain in office for two months after she was convicted in 2009 of stealing gift cards.

The constitutional amendment will cause the automatic suspension of elected officials the moment they are found guilty and remove them from office after a guilty plea or when the appeals process is exhausted.

Sun reporter Jonathan Pitts and Leslie Spacek contributed to this article.

matthew.brown@baltsun.com

twitter.com/matthewhaybrown

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