Amid federal inaction, Md. among states to take up immigration issue

Clad in black T-shirts that read, "I am Maryland. Youth can DREAM," a dozen undocumented students came to Annapolis last week to thank state Sen. Victor R. Ramirez.

Even before he was sworn in, the Prince George's County Democrat had pledged to try to extend in-state tuition at Maryland's public colleges and universities to the children of illegal immigrants.

Elsewhere in the capital that day, Del. Patrick L. McDonough called for officers at state buildings to bar the entry of those students — and anyone, he said, who could not present proof of citizenship.

The Baltimore County Republican outlined plans to introduce several bills to crack down on illegal immigrants in what he calls a "sanctuary state."

Similar clashes are unfolding in statehouses across the nation. As a decade of bipartisan efforts at comprehensive immigration reform in Washington comes to an end in a divided and polarized Congress, local lawmakers — including those in states, such as Maryland, far from some other country's border — are taking matters into their own hands.

All 46 states that held a regular legislative session last year addressed immigration in some form, enacting more than 200 laws and adopting 138 resolutions — a record number, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. And there's no sign that interest will ebb this year, conference official Ann Morse said.

Legislatures "are reflecting the general public's frustration with the issue," Morse said. She said many of the laws, in fact, are passed merely as "a way to get the federal government to pay attention."

Advocates for undocumented immigrants warn that state attempts to assume the federal responsibility to defend the borders are fraught with pitfalls. A spokesman for the Washington-based National Immigration Forum points to last year's controversial Arizona law, which would require law enforcement agents to verify the immigration status of suspects they believe could be in the country illegally.

The Obama administration says the law is unconstitutional; it is now tied up in court.

State legislative fixes "can have dire consequences," National Immigration Forum spokesman Martine Apodaca said.

Frederick County Sheriff Charles A. Jenkins, who leads the only law enforcement agency in Maryland with a formal policy of referring undocumented suspects to federal immigration authorities, said waiting for Congress "to do something" is "the easy way out."

Jenkins says the county policy has led to 800 deportation proceedings.

"It's easy for any sheriff or chief of police or legislator to say, 'It's a federal problem,'" he said. "But what we've demonstrated here in Frederick County is that there is a clear role for the locals to play."

At least seven states, including Pennsylvania, are seriously considering legislation modeled on Arizona's law, according to the National Immigration Forum.

McDonough has put together an Arizona-style bill for the Maryland legislature to consider, but it is not expected to go anywhere in the Democrat-dominated General Assembly.

"What's important to me is the rule of law, the citizenship we have and its value," McDonough said.

More likely to gain traction this year, according to House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, is a plan that would enable undocumented students schooled in Maryland to pay in-state tuition at the state's public colleges and universities.

Ramirez, who was elected to the Senate in November, called the legislation "a matter of education policy, not immigration policy."

Federal law requires public schools to provide K-12 education to undocumented children. Given that the state has already invested in those children, Ramirez said, "it makes no sense to abandon them" if they go on to seek higher education.

Ramirez, who was born in El Salvador and moved to Maryland legally with his family as a child, authored similar legislation as a delegate. He will be joined in the effort by Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr., a Montgomery County Democrat who also has long advocated for in-state tuition.

The legislature passed an in-state tuition bill in 2003, but it was vetoed by then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican. Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat who has referred to illegal immigrants as "new Americans," said he would sign an in-state tuition bill.

Ten states now offer in-state tuition to undocumented students, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Morse, the conference's program director, says a court finding upholding such a law in California will likely encourage other states to consider similar measures.

Kim Propeack, organizing director at the immigrant advocacy group Casa de Maryland, said rejection of the federal Dream Act last month "was felt deeply" in Maryland, with its large immigrant community, its proximity to the nation's capital and its Democrat-majority population.

"There's a very emotional relationship between the failure of the Dream Act and the movement locally," she said.

The federal legislation, which was backed by President Barack Obama and most congressional Democrats, would have extended citizenship to some children of illegal immigrants if those children served in the military or pursued higher education. It was approved last month by the then-Democratic House, but fell short of the 60 votes needed to advance in the Senate.

Miller, the state Senate president, has said he would support an in-state tuition bill, but predicts lawmakers will seek a compromise, such as extending the offer only at community colleges, and not four-year institutions.

A Southern Maryland Democrat, Miller anticipates that lawmakers will hear loudly from constituents on the issue. He does not believe that Marylanders support giving in-state tuition to illegal immigrants.

Jenkins, the Frederick County sheriff, said citizens feel strongly about cracking down on illegal immigrants. He is surprised more sheriffs across the state haven't followed his county's example.

"I talk to average citizens, and there's a real want out there for government leaders to stand up and do something about the problem," Jenkins said.

Until June 2009, Maryland was the only state east of the Rocky Mountains that didn't require applicants for driver's licenses to prove they were in the country lawfully. The practice ended only after a long and emotional legislative debate, punctuated with shouting and tears, that continued to the final moments of that year's session.

Last week in Annapolis, after the undocumented students and their advocates greeted Ramirez and other supportive senators, they stood in front of the State House as Maryland's 188 lawmakers filed in to be sworn in for their four-year terms.

Jennifer Miranda, 23, has lived in Baltimore County for eight years. Upon graduating from Dundalk High School in 2007, the Guatemala native won a scholarship that enabled her to study for two years at the Community College of Baltimore County.

When that dried up, she learned she would be charged the international student rate rather than what Maryland residents pay. She wants to be a lawyer, but she couldn't afford the tuition.

Yves Gomes pays in-state tuition at Montgomery College, the only school in the state that permits undocumented residents to pay the reduced rate.

McDonough has legislation that would explicitly ban any college, including Montgomery, from extending in-state tuition to undocumented students; he also is working to sue the school.

"You can't give this state taxpayer-financed benefit to illegal immigrants," he told reporters in October.

Gomes, 18, has lived in Montgomery County since he was a toddler. His Bangladeshi father and Indian mother were deported a little over a year ago. Gomes said he was able to stay here because "my community rallied around me."

He wants to be a doctor and is working with a lawyer to become a lawful citizen.

"I worked hard for 12 years," he said. "Not being able to go to school would ruin everything I've worked for."