Proposed tuition break debated

The Baltimore Sun

Advocates hoping to allow illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition rates at Maryland universities offered impassioned testimony to Senate lawmakers yesterday, while opposition groups warned legislators that if they approve such a measure, the state would be vulnerable to lawsuits.

Members of the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee peppered both sides with questions that touched on constitutional issues and whether the bill would increase competition for admission at Maryland universities.

Sen. Andrew P. Harris, a Baltimore County Republican, disputed the bill's estimated fiscal impact, saying the cost to Maryland would be larger than the $1.1. million projected by 2012. He also said the bill would take enrollment slots away from deserving citizens.

"My district would be furious with me if I gave away their tax dollars to people who are here illegally," he said. "These people, every day of their lives, break the law, and then they have the nerve to ask my constituents for a taxpayer subsidy? That's nerve."

Ricardo Flores, public policy director at the Public Justice Center, which supports the legislation, said laws once barred women from seeking higher education, but once such prohibitions were repealed, women competed with men for the same slots.

"The history of educational opportunity shows us, now that we have an open society that doesn't discriminate on the basis of race and gender, that providing educational opportunity provides a net benefit to everyone," he said.

Flores said it was disingenuous to label illegal immigrant students as lawbreakers. "The vast majority of them come here at a very young age," he said. "The status that these individuals have is a byproduct of a broken immigration system."

Lawmakers in the House battled out the contentious issue last month, passing the measure, 81-57. Gov. Martin O'Malley gave a boost to the measure, pledging to sign the bill.

Sen. Joan Carter Conway, chairwoman of the panel, hinted that the committee might consider amending the bill to require that students reside in Maryland for four years before being eligible for in-state rates. Currently, the bill would require students to prove attendance at a Maryland high school for at least two years and demonstrate an intent to apply for legal residence. Also, the student's parents must be paying Maryland taxes.

J. Robert Hooper, a Harford County Republican, said he has been inundated with e-mails and phone calls from constituents who oppose the measure. "Our phones have been ringing off the hook on this," he said. "Their feelings are strong, and they're mad."

Ten states have passed similar legislation, including Texas, California, Utah and Kansas, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Del. Victor Ramirez, the bill's sponsor and a Prince George's County Democrat, said he obtained a letter from the attorney general's office saying that the bill would not violate the law.

"These students have a dream just like all of us ... to go to college," he said. "These students are as American as you and I, whether you choose to believe it."

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