Petitioners hit the streets to stop tuition breaks for illegal immigrants

The red-and-white placards outside the Motor Vehicle Administration office in Frederick strike some as an invitation: "Sign petition here. No in-state tuition for illegal immigrants."

One after another, supporters walk up. Over the course of the morning, Carol Geisbert welcomes, among others, a Montgomery County mother of three college-bound teens, a truck driver named Dewey Sayers and a 28-year-old Frederick Community College student wearing a Beastie Boys T-shirt.

Two Carroll County sisters in their 60s practically skip to the table.

All are eager to get their hands on the petition.

"Just tell me where to sign," says one of the sisters, Pat Baumgardner, who whistles as she approaches. "I got better things to use my tax money for."

Over the past two months, volunteers such as Geisbert have fanned out across the state to gather signatures for the petition to give voters the final say on the controversial new law that extends in-state tuition discounts to illegal immigrants.

The Republican-led effort will come to a head next week. If the petitioners can collect 55,736 valid signatures by June 30, implementation of the law would be suspended and the measure would be put on the 2012 ballot.

That appears likely, as the state Board of Elections has certified more than 47,000 names from a preliminary round of submissions last month, and organizers plan to submit many more before the deadline.

They have relied heavily on a website linked to the state's voter registration database — a new method that advocates for immigrants say they will challenge in court.

But the petitioners say they have gathered tens of thousands of signatures the old-fashioned way: by knocking on doors, setting up tables at local festivals and community meetings, and approaching Marylanders as they go about their lives.

In recent weeks, the ground operation has attracted the attention of Casa de Maryland. Volunteers and paid workers for the immigrant advocacy group have gone to petition sites to intercept would-be signers and make the case for the new law.

To qualify for the tuition break, an illegal immigrant would have to attend high school in Maryland for three years and show that his or her family had filed state tax returns. The student then could attend a community college at the in-state rate. After completing 60 credits, he or she could transfer to a four-year college, again at the residential discount.

The legislation would save eligible students $4,000 to $6,000 per year at community college, according to a legislative analysis. At a four-year institution, the savings would increase: In-state tuition at the University of Maryland, College Park this year is $8,655; nonresidents pay $25,795.

Legislative analysts estimate that the measure would cost the state about $800,000 in the first year, rising to $3.5 million annually by 2016. Opponents say the cost could be far higher.

During the petition drive, some of the encounters between the sides have been testy. At the Rockville Hometown Celebration on Memorial Day weekend, Casa de Maryland organizer Kim Propeack said, she was jeered by petitioners who at one point surrounded her.

"It was pretty rough," Propeack said. "I think they were shocked to see that we were willing to get out there and present the other side."

The petitioners say she was physically blocking people who wanted to sign.

Petitioners have occasionally been booted from public spaces, including post offices, parks and pedestrian areas outside Camden Yards during Orioles games.

Del. Michael D. Smigiel Sr., an attorney, has intervened, telling authorities who have tried to block the volunteers that they are violating the First Amendment and the Maryland Constitution. Armed with advice from the office of the attorney general about the right to gather signatures in public places, the Eastern Shore Republican has won back access to Camden Yards and other places.

At the Frederick MVA office off Interstate 70 — a location so convenient that it draws drivers from surrounding counties — the petition volunteers are left alone. Del. Kathy Afzali, the Frederick County Republican who has organized the local volunteer effort, said she has been "overwhelmed" by support for the petition.

An Afzali aide who is volunteering on the petition drive sets up outside the office about 9 a.m. The operation is simple: A table, a pair of lawn chairs and a clipboard of blank petitions, each including the text of the in-state tuition bill as the elections board has required.

In no time, people begin diverting from the MVA entrance to stop by the table. More often than not, they ask just one question: "Where do I sign?"

Marlene Murphy says she has received emails from friends about the tuition-repeal effort. The 51-year-old mother of three teenage boys said she thinks about the college bills that lie ahead.

"I think being a legal, taxpaying resident is important not only to be a citizen, but to get the benefits of citizenship," she said.

Geisbert watches Murphy sign her name, reminding her to include her middle name or initial, to adhere to the state's strict rules on petitions.

Murphy has barely stepped away when Sayers steps up. The 59-year-old truck driver from Westminster has heard plenty about the law and the repeal effort but he still flips the petition page over and skims the text.

"I'm going to read anything I sign," he said.

Ashley Harrington, the Frederick Community College student, says she has no problem with hard-working young people getting a break on college tuition — as long as they are in the country legally.

"It's hard for me to even get in-state tuition, and I've lived here all my life," she said.

About 90 minutes into Geisbert's shift, a young woman lingers at the table, asking questions about the law. As Geisbert engages her, the woman says she is "on the fence" and hustles to her car in the parking lot. A moment later she's back, clutching a stack of fliers urging opposition to the petition drive.

"Think before you ink!" it reads. "Say no to extremists spreading unnecessary fear."

The woman declines to give her name, but says she works for One Maryland Defense, an organization formed by Casa de Maryland, the Service Employees International Union and other groups.

Propeack said it's "absolutely appropriate" to describe the petitioners as "a small group of extremists."

Petitioners working the neighborhoods say they haven't encountered such opposition.

Derek Fink became something of an expert at knocking on doors — he says he hit about 5,000 houses — during his run last fall for the Anne Arundel County Council. The Republican won a four-year term, but these days finds himself back in campaign mode.

On a rainy day last week, he hit a section of close-set homes in the Chesterfield neighborhood of Pasadena, clutching a list of registered voters. He pays no mind to party affiliation, seeking out Democrats, Republicans and unaffiliated voters alike.

At a home listed as the residence of registered Democrats, Keyona Godfrey cracks open the front door. The smell of dinner wafts from the kitchen as her 2-year-old son peers out at the strangers on the front porch.

"Hi, I'm Councilman Derek Fink. Are you familiar with the petition to stop illegal immigrants from receiving in-state tuition?"

Godfrey, 32, looks puzzled as she shakes her head and says, "Oh, that's not good."

Fink doesn't need to say much more. He hands Godfrey the clipboard with the petition; she signs her name.

A moment later, Sylvia Hawkins, 60, appears in the doorway. She has heard about the petition effort on the news, she says, and has been waiting for someone to come around.

"It's hard enough for us to get tuition," Godfrey said. "We need to take care of our own first."