On some level, Oscar Moreno knew growing up that his family did not have permission to live in the United States.
But it wasn't until now, as the 17-year-old Baltimore Polytechnic Institute senior makes plans for a career in architectural engineering, that it seemed to matter. As an illegal immigrant — his mother brought him over the border from their native Mexico when he was five — Moreno does not qualify for in-state tuition at the University of Maryland.
He's campaigning for the Maryland Dream Act — his only real chance, he says, at affording college.
On the other side of the ballot fight, Brad Botwin opposes tuition breaks for illegal immigrants.
The 55-year-old Montgomery County man speaks with pride of his grandparents and great-grandparents, Jews who emigrated from what is now Belarus, landed at Ellis Island, shortened the family name, learned English and pooled their money to send their children to college.
But Botwin, an analyst and manager for the federal government, objects to those who break the rules — sneaking over the border or overstaying their visas — and take jobs that Americans would work and use services he funds with his taxes.
On Nov. 6, Maryland voters will decide whether to extend the in-state tuition discount at the state's public colleges and universities to some undocumented students. To qualify, students must have been brought to the United States as children, have attended at least three years of high school in Maryland, and come from families that have filed state tax returns, among other requirements.
Legislative analysts estimate that the measure would cost Maryland $3.5 million per year. But some researchers say the students will get better jobs if they go to college and eventually pay millions more in taxes.
The proposal was approved last year by the General Assembly and signed into law by Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat. But opponents mounted the state's first successful petition drive in two decades, gathering more than 108,000 signatures to suspend the law and let the voters decide.
Question 4 has drawn supporters and critics. But for some — from the students who would benefit to the taxpayers who don't want to subsidize the education of illegal immigrants — the issue is personal.
founded Help Save Maryland six years ago to battle laws and programs that he says lure illegal immigrants to the state. His principal target now: the in-state tuition break.
"We're not stopping anyone from going to college," he says. "We're not rounding anyone up. … If the system allows you to work somehow or other, God bless. But I think, at this stage, college education? You're really on your own."
Without such assistance, Moreno says, he has no chance of paying for college.
"A lot of smart people have a lot to offer the state," says Moreno, whose grade-point average last year was 3.77 out of 4. "If they allow the people that are actually trying in school, that actually have good grades in school, no matter their race or their documentation, they could actually better things."
For Moreno, the passage of Question 4 could mean a career. He wants to study architectural engineering at College Park. Math comes naturally to him, he says, as does drafting.
"I think it would be really cool to design buildings, make everything more environmentally friendly," he says.
But without the in-state tuition break, he says, "I can't really go to college. I don't have the money for out-of-state tuition, and I can't get any financial aid, because I don't have a Social Security number."
"When your relatives came over and mine, there was a lottery system. This was not just, 'Get on the boat and hit the shore at the statue and you're here,' " Botwin said. "There was a process, and not all Botwin relatives made it over.
"So the ability of particular groups to literally walk across the border, set up shop, start moving into my schools, have groups that are feeding them, to come up here … that just bothered me as wrong," he said.
The father of two children now in their 20s, Botwin sees his activism against illegal immigration as an extension of his volunteering with his son's Little League team or his daughter's Brownie troop.
He became involved in 2005 when the Montgomery County Council approved funding to set up a center in Gaithersburg for day laborers looking for work with local contractors. Botwin and others testified at public hearings against the plan, and officials could not find a landlord to take the center.
The opponents' victory was only temporary. Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett, elected in 2006, opened the center on county land just outside Gaithersburg.
"That really kind of pushed me over the edge," Botwin says. "So I said, 'You know what? I'm going to find some time,' and I created Help Save Maryland."
Botwin named a board and set up a website, which describes the group as "a multi-ethnic, grassroots, citizens' organization" that "provides helpful facts to citizens otherwise frustrated by Maryland policies which encourage illegal immigration."
The group now has roughly 3,000 members, Botwin says, who receive e-mail blasts on the developments in driver's licenses for illegal immigrants, the spread of day labor centers, the E-Verify federal program that enables employers to determine the immigration status of potential employees, and other issues.
That e-mail list proved valuable last year to state Del. Neil Parrott, the Hagerstown Republican who organized the petition drive against the Dream Act.
At the outset, Parrott says, "there was no money from any source" to publicize the drive, organize volunteers and gather signatures.
"Right away, Brad Botwin with Help Save Maryland was there," Parrott says. "He had an organization and he has contacts with people all across the state. … So his leadership, he's inspired a grassroots team that really cares and sees the problem."
Botwin, who makes presentations and appears on panels about immigration, says undocumented students may seem a sympathetic group. But he describes the Dream Act as one part of a more comprehensive — and expensive — effort to draw illegal immigrants to Maryland, where they may send their children to public school and use other services.
"If the day laborer or any illegal here has a child, they're automatically citizens. That triggers a whole slew of services. They can bring in services for the rest of the family. That has an even larger expense," he said.
"So, from, 'Well, what's so bad about giving in-state tuition' — yikes! This has now blossomed into a huge cost."
Oscar Moreno hears a lot about taxes. When he talks about BPI Dreamers, the group he formed at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, or when he calls voters to rally support for the Dream Act before the vote next month, it's the question he's asked most: Why should the government spend my tax dollars to educate people who shouldn't be here in the first place?
Moreno responds that his family pays taxes, too. His father has a regular job in construction; his mother used to work in a chocolate factory. His two older sisters have worked in restaurants.
He doesn't remember much about crossing the border. His mother brought him and his sisters to Baltimore, where their father already had settled. He enrolled in school — Highlandtown, Graceland Park and John Ruhrah elementary — learned English, and found he had a facility in math. He won a spot at Poly, a magnet school that focuses on math, science and engineering.
He says his parents didn't hide their immigration status from him.
"I guess I knew, but I really didn't know what it meant," he says. "I guess I had an image in my mind that we weren't really supposed to be here, but I didn't really understand. … I didn't know that I couldn't do all these things in the future."
With college uncertain, Moreno has marched in support of the Dream Act, and volunteers on phone banks organized to back it. He is looking now to community college, where the legislation requires students to complete the equivalent of two years.
His father, José Moreno, calls the Dream Act " a great step for the undocumented people."
"This is the reason to bring my family to the USA," he says. "To get great opportunities for my kids and for my family."
Regina O'Neal, a Spanish teacher at Poly, came to know Oscar Moreno through CASA de Maryland, where they both volunteer. Moreno works with the undocumented in CASA's Deferred Action Clinic, helping them with the paperwork for a federal program through which the government may decline to pursue removal proceedings against those who were brought to the United States as children.
"I was pleasantly surprised to see such a young man working so diligently for his community," O'Neal says. She is now the faculty adviser to the BPI Dreamers, the group of about 10 students Moreno founded to talk about the Dream Act.
"I believe in that young man, and I want him to be able to go to college so that we can benefit from his knowledge, benefit from his skills and his talents that he is going to develop, unquestionably, in college," O'Neal says. "This young man could be a remarkable engineer. He could be a remarkable attorney. He could be a remarkable doctor. I want those skills and talents here in Maryland."
Moreno speaks Spanish and still has family in Mexico. But he hasn't been back since leaving 12 years ago, and says the idea of being deported scares him.
"I wouldn't know how to live there," he says. "The life is definitely different. … I really don't have much memory about it."
Asked if he feels American now, he says "I don't really categorize myself."
"I would say I'm Americanized," he says. "I've been living an American lifestyle since I've been here."
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Public Institutions of Higher Education — Tuition Rates
Establishes that individuals, including undocumented immigrants, are eligible to pay in-state tuition rates at community colleges in Maryland, provided the student meets certain conditions relating to attendance and graduation from a Maryland high school, filing of income taxes, intent to apply for permanent residency, and registration with the selective service system (if required); makes such students eligible to pay in-state tuition rates at a four-year public college or university if the student has first completed 60 credit hours or graduated from a community college in Maryland; provides that students qualifying for in-state tuition rates by this method will not be counted as in-state students for purposes of counting undergraduate enrollment; and extends the time in which honorably discharged veterans may qualify for in-state tuition rates.