Maryland Dream Act supporters launch campaign to uphold law

Amid chants and cheers, a group including clergy, unions and a university president rallied Wednesday in support of Maryland's law to give tuition breaks to illegal immigrants.

"Vote yes for education! Vote yes for Maryland students!" yelled Karina, a 22-year-old illegal immigrant from Montgomery County who wants to attend college at the discounted in-state rate.

The coalition wants to uphold the Maryland Dream Act, a controversial 2011 law that would let some illegal immigrants pay the lower in-state tuition rate at the state's colleges and universities. The law would apply to illegal immigrants who have attended Maryland high schools and whose families have filed state tax returns. Students would have to attend two years of community college before applying to a four year college.

If the law is upheld in a statewide referendum in November, Maryland would be the 13th state in the country to allow such a provision, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Supporters, including University of Maryland Baltimore County president Freeman A. Hrabrowski, say the undocumented students should not be punished for the sins of their parents. Hrabowski said he sees only benefits to expanding educational opportunities. "We believe in the importance of education," he said. "It is the best of the American way."

Opponents say the law will cost the state money at a time when the budget is already stretched thin and will reward law breaking. While extremely active last year, foes of the law have not yet formed a ballot committee or put together a formal group to fight the law at the ballot box.

Del. Pat McDonough, a Baltimore County Republican who is a longtime crusader against illegal immigration, plans his own rally Thursday against the law and will start a statewide tour to sign up volunteers. "Even though we don't have an organization, we do have the sentiment of the people," McDonough said.

He said he's unsure if his side will raise enough money to fund television ads, but expects paid radio spots, direct mail and an army of volunteers at the polls on Election Day. He said it is unclear when the law's opponents will create a formal ballot committee to defeat it.

The Maryland Dream Act squeaked through the General Assembly on the last day of the 2011 session and promptly touched off a firestorm from the right. A group led by Del. Neil Parrott, a Washington County Republican, gathered 122,000 signatures last summer and halted the law from taking effect pending a referendum.

Wednesday's event at UMBC served as the official launch of the "Educating Maryland's Kids Campaign," which will coordinate activity to support the law in November, though the group actually formed eight months ago. They have reported raising $75,000, all from the Service Employees International Union.

Parrott, who led the petition effort, has been working this spring helping to gather signatures to put the same-sex marriage law and the state's new congressional map on the ballot. He has said he will start focusing on the campaign to overturn the Dream Act in coming weeks.

With three laws expected to be on the November ballot, the campaigns will overlap in unexpected ways. Gay rights advocates attended Wednesday's rally — standing beside the Catholic clergy who are spearheading a separate movement to defeat the same-sex marriage law.

"You don't agree on everything," said Carrie Evans, executive director of Equality Maryland, which lobbied for the same-sex marriage law. "You hope the church will see the plight of the gay Dreamers," she said.

She said she caught the eye — but did not talk with — Mary Ellen Russell, executive director of the Maryland Catholic Conference, who fought against same-sex marriage.

Bishop Denis Madden, auxiliary bishop for the Archdiocese of Baltimore, spoke at the event. "We believe in education for all of God's children," Madden said.

He said the federal immigration laws are "in tatters," and believes children should not bear the brunt of that policy failure.

Members of group say they will gather in downtown Baltimore Thursday to march through the city and listen to illegal immigrants share stories about their desire to defend the law.

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