Senate to take up tuition break for undocumented students

The state Senate is poised this week to take up a controversial plan to offer discounted tuition at Maryland's public colleges and universities to students who are in the country illegally.

The legislation, which cleared the Senate education committee last week, would allow undocumented students to pay in-state tuition at any of Maryland's public community colleges. After completing two years of study, they could transfer to a four-year institution and continue to pay the in-state rate.

Passage of the measure would likely make Maryland one of the few states in the country to grant new privileges to its undocumented residents. Many states are moving in the opposite direction, looking for ways to tighten immigration controls.

More than a dozen states are considering rules that empower police to investigate citizenship status of those accused of minor crimes. Lawmakers in Arizona are debating legislation that would prevent illegal immigrants from being treated in emergency rooms. And Kansas, one of 10 states that now allow in-state tuition for illegal immigrants, is considering dropping the practice.

"In the absence of federal immigration reform, a lot of states are taking this into their own hands," said Martine Apodaca, a spokesman for the National Immigration Forum, a Washington-based advocacy group. "The failure of Congress to pass immigration reform is creating a political vacuum."

Freshman Sen. Victor Ramirez, the Prince George's County Democrat who introduced the Maryland legislation, called it "a good start." Gov. Martin O'Malley said during his 2010 campaign that he would sign such a bill.

But opponents are gearing up for a fight: Senate Republican Leader Nancy Jacobs has requested additional time to draft amendments. Sen. E.J. Pipkin kicked off the resistance last week with a series of technical questions about the bill.

The initial discussion has framed the issues. Critics say the bill costs too much, rewards lawbreaking and puts families who have followed the rules at a disadvantage. Supporters say it is a matter of both fairness and good sense to help educate the state's high school graduates, legal or otherwise.

Maryland advocates have long wanted to grant the children of illegal immigrants in-state tuition. The General Assembly approved such a plan in 2003, but then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. vetoed it.

Since then, Maryland has grown more diverse, with the number of Latinos doubling in the past decade and the number of Asians growing by half.

Ehrlich, a Republican, attempted to bring illegal immigration into the 2010 campaign, when he mocked O'Malley, a Democrat, for calling undocumented residents "New Americans." O'Malley defeated Ehrlich by more than 14 percentage points.

After the failure last year of a bill that would have allowed in-state tuition to four-year institutions, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said the scaled-back approach of offering the discount initially for community colleges could aid passage in the upper chamber.

Such schools have open enrollment, so undocumented students wouldn't displace U.S. citizens.

After earning an associate's degree or completing 60 credits, a student could apply for transfer to a four-year institution.

"It shows that the students are serious," said Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, who is leading the floor debate for the bill. "They are willing to take the steps to do the groundwork."

Ramirez said undocumented students in other states largely attend community colleges.

The bill would save qualifying students from $4,000 to $6,000 a year at community college, according to a legislative analysis. For those who go on to a four-year institution, the savings would increase. In-state tuition at the University of Maryland, College Park this year is $8,655; nonresidents pay $25,795.

The Rev. Paul W. Johnson, who helped develop the community college proposal, said he "knows the sense of dejection" faced by successful high school graduates who can't afford nonresident tuition at the University of Maryland.

"We want our children, regardless of their circumstance, to do the best they possibly can," said Johnson, of Grace United Methodist Church in Takoma Park.

Students would have to prove that they or their parents paid Maryland taxes for two years before enrollment. They would also need to submit an affidavit indicating that they were attempting to become citizens.

Though the focus on community colleges is meant to address concerns that illegal immigrants will edge out Maryland citizens at the state's increasingly competitive four-year institutions, opponents pointed out that displacement would still occur.

"These are slots that are supposed to be reserved for Maryland residents," said Pipkin, an Eastern Shore Republican. "That is the objection that runs through this debate. No amount of sugarcoating changes that."

Democrats also have expressed skepticism. Sen. James Brochin, a Baltimore County Democrat, has asked about the costs associated with the bill. A legislative analysis assumed that 366 students would take advantage, at a cost of nearly $800,000 to the state.

That amount seemed to surprise senators, who are struggling with a budget deficit estimated at as much as $1.6 billion.

Miller downplayed the cost: "How do you calculate the advantage of providing a college education?"

Pipkin said the idea shifts costs to the counties.

"We seem to want to pay attention to fiscal notes until we don't want to pay attention to fiscal notes," he said.