Carroll County Times
Carroll County

An educational battle: Both sides of DREAM Act use grassroots activism

Buddy Eichelberger's route started with his next-door neighbor.

The then 78-year-old knocked on the door and asked if they'd heard about the law that passed, the DREAM Act, the one where children brought to the country illegally would be granted in-state tuition at Maryland colleges.

So it went, for two and a half hours five, sometimes six, nights a week in June 2011. Eichelberger went between Baltimore and Carroll County homes, roaming roads he didn't know existed, to ask residents to sign a petition to put the DREAM Act - which stands for Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors - to a public vote Nov. 6.

Because of DREAM Act opponents' efforts, 18-year-old Frankee Lyons helps organize tabling events around the state to educate residents about question number four on the ballot. There's a lot of misinformation out there, said the Mount Airy teen, who is an immigrants rights advocate for human rights organization Amnesty International.

"It might only affect a small percentage of potential college students," she said, "but because it affects anyone, it affects all of us. We are a society. And that's one of the beauties of America."

The Maryland DREAM Act narrowly passed the state legislature on the last day of the 2011 legislative session. A committee comprised of state delegates and senators quickly reconvened that day to compromise on more of the bill's components, a foreshadowing of the contention to come.

Both sides cry the other is misinformed.

Opponents say illegal is illegal, and that's that. Incentives shouldn't be given to those who break the law, said Michelle Jefferson, former chairwoman of We the People, Carroll County.

"I know everybody thinks this is the right thing to do. Those poor kids," she said. "But what about those of us who follow the law every day? But what about those who can't pay to have another penny taken out of our paychecks to pay for somebody who's broken the law?"

With that viewpoint in mind, We the People, Carroll County garnered thousands of signatures to help put the issue on the referendum, the first time in nearly 20 years that such a petition was successful in Maryland; the last issue was abortion in 1992, according to Alan Brody, state Attorney General's Office spokesman. Eichelberger alone netted 518. That was step one.

Now, it's crunch time.

When Eichelberger - a We the People, Carroll County member - leaves the house, he grabs one of the about 400 index cards laying on his kitchen table, waiting for him to snag a stack on his way out. The card reads: "Question No. 4: Public Institutions of Higher Education-Tuition Rates: This gives in-state tuition to illegal immigrants."

When Jefferson leaves to go to the grocery store, she tells her husband she'll be back in 15 to 20 minutes. See you in an hour, he says.

That's because many group members take the cards to stores, to their children's sports games, to work, wherever they go, Jefferson said. Because there's always an opportunity to inform and to educate voters on the issue and the ballot's wording, which doesn't say the words "DREAM Act."

"They were really cute how they worded this ballot question," she said. "We will be making sure people know that question No. 4 is giving in-state tuition to illegal immigrants."

Armed with the same tactic - grassroots organization - proponents of the law are galvanizing around the state using, like their opponents, education to drum up support for the act, said Kristin Ford, communications director of Educating Maryland Kids. The organization is comprised of others - such as the Maryland Catholic Conference, Amnesty International and CASA de Maryland - all of which want voters to vote "for the referred law" on question No. 4.

"We think there's been a lot of misinformation and a lot of voters who don't know about question four and the DREAM act," she said. "Our job isn't to convince people but to explain what the law actually does, and that's what does the convincing for us."

So across the state, supporters are calling state residents and hosting voter registrations drives and marches for the cause, the next to be held Saturday, Oct. 6.

People fear the unknown, Ford said. Most don't realize the act requires the children of illegal immigrants to have been brought to the United States in time to attend three years of high school, attend a two-year community college, require parents or guardian to file an income tax return and then they must be accepted into the school of their choosing.

In Carroll County, though, the activism has mainly stemmed from opponents of the measure. Elena Hartley - director of the United Hands, a Carroll County nonprofit that helps immigrants make informed decisions about family needs - said she's fielded calls about the DREAM Act. However, she hasn't heard of any activism supporting the legislation in the county.

Lyons said there could be a reason.

"It is a partisan issue, and it's red out where we live," the 18-year-old from Mount Airy said. "Unfortunately, people refuse to view it through the human rights lens."

As of this year, there are more than 55,000 registered Republicans in Carroll County and more than 32,000 Democrats, according to the Maryland State Board of Elections' website.

Activists on both sides argue it's not about what party an individual identifies with. For supporters, it's about educational opportunities for all. But for opponents, it's comes down to the fact that those who would qualify are not legal United States citizens.

So the educational battle wages on until Nov. 6, when the voters take the issue into their hands and make a decision - which activists hope is an informed one.