By Megan Poinski
Debate over whether young illegal immigrants living in Maryland and graduating from the state’s high schools should get in-state tuition to public colleges rocked an hours-long hearing Wednesday on a bill proposed by Sen. Victor Ramirez.
Ramirez’s bill, Maryland’s version of the proposed federal DREAM — Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act — would take a student’s citizenship out of the determination for whether he or she qualifies for in-state college tuition. State residents pay about $8,600 in tuition each year to attend the University of Maryland, College Park. Illegal immigrants, who are not currently counted as state residents, must pay out-of-state tuition rates, about $25,000 each year.
“That’s not a car payment. That’s a car,” Ramirez, a Prince George’s Democrat, said.
The state has many young people who were brought to Maryland by their parents when they were children, Ramirez said.
According to Ramirez’s bill, students who attended a Maryland high school for at least two years, can provide proof that their parents or guardians have paid taxes, and who have applied to be legal permanent residents would be able to qualify for the in-state tuition rate.
Most senators on the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, and many of the people packed into the hearing room seemed to support the bill, but there were those who were vehemently opposed.
“Why should they be held responsible for the sins of their fathers?” Ramirez asked, as he finished introducing the bill.
Anne Arundel Republican Sen. Bryan Simonaire gave a pointed response.
“With our dire budget situation, why are our taxpayers held responsible for the sins of their fathers?”
Legislative analysts estimated the bill would cost the state $3.5 million.
Desiree Venn Frederic first came to Maryland from Sierra Leone when she was eight. She studied hard, got all the right internships, and set her sights on becoming a neurosurgeon. As she was finishing high school, she handily received grants and scholarships to go to college.
Her future plans abruptly came to a halt at the beginning of her second semester of college, when she received a letter stating that her grants and scholarships had been revoked because she was an undocumented immigrant. The letter gave her family two weeks to pay the out-of-state tuition balance of $30,000.
Unable to gather the funds, Venn Frederic dropped out of school. She got a job to save money in order to return. One year of working turned into two and three quickly. She said she started feeling ashamed of her immigration status.
“The unintended consequences of the law are there,” she said. “It kills the spirit. And I can tell you as I am sitting here that it killed mine.”
Several other students – many wearing printed T-shirts advocating for the DREAM Act – shared their experiences with the committee. Some were U.S. citizens who commiserated with the plight of their classmates, but most of them were undocumented immigrants themselves.
Yves Gomes, who is attending Prince George’s Community College, was nearly deported last year – even though he has lived in Maryland since he was one-and-a-half. His parents were both deported in 2009, his mother to her native India, and his father to his native Bangladesh.
Gomes now lives with relatives and wants to eventually transfer to the University of Maryland College Park to study toward becoming a doctor. He said that without affordable tuition, his dream cannot become a reality.
“We also hope that our state, Maryland, will invest in us so that we can make you proud,” he said.
Sen. Joanne Benson, a Prince George’s Democrat and former educator, started asking Gomes about his grades in high school and SAT scores. He graduated near the top of his class, and had a high score on the college admission test. Benson said she could easily recognize his potential.
“It would be shameful for us to not let you go on to college,” she declared, almost shouting. “What is wrong with us? We should be ashamed of ourselves!”
Educators, officials, clergy support bill
Several top higher education officials, as well as Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker and Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett, gave their support to the bill.
Montgomery College President DiRionne Pollard and Prince George’s Community College President Charlene Dukes spoke on behalf of all of the state’s community colleges. Dukes said that she is convinced that if immigrants don’t have affordable access to college, they will not go at all.
Montgomery College is being sued by conservative watchdog group Judicial Watch because the community college gave in-county tuition to illegal immigrants who graduated from Montgomery County high schools. Pollard did not mention the lawsuit on Wednesday, but said that the college’s philosophy is that everyone should have access to an education.
Patrick Hogan, assistant vice chancellor for government relations at the University System of Maryland, said that the Board of Regents supports the bill. The question of granting in-state tuition to illegal immigrants has been discussed by the university system quite a bit, and he said it was “absolutely necessary.”
Members of the clergy also testified in support of the bill. Bishop Douglas Miles of Koinonia Baptist Church in Baltimore reminded senators of the days of American slavery.
“It’s not what is legal, but what is just,” Miles said. “We’re in a situation where what’s legal is not always just.”
Opponents speak out
The opposition to the bill was every bit as impassioned as its support. Several residents and grassroots groups spoke up, saying that the state needs to concentrate its efforts on creating jobs for citizens, not subsidizing education for illegals.
“This bill is to me a scam to get another subsidized taxpayer service for illegal immigrants,” said Brad Botwin, director of Help Save Maryland, a group that fights illegal immigration. Botwin continued that adding a requirement for the students to prove their parents paid taxes is absurd because illegal immigrants should not be working.
Raymond Hawkins and Sandy Pruitt, both of whom work with black advocacy groups in Prince George’s County, said that the bill is an insult to the African-American community.
Pruitt, director of People for Change, said that there are hundreds of young black men in the state’s jails who might want to dream of a college education, but cannot because they broke the law.
Hawkins was concerned because his nephew, who left Maryland for college, but is a U.S. citizen and graduate of a Maryland high school, would have to apply for residency in order to get in-state tuition. Under this bill, there are illegal immigrants who would not have to do that.
Judy Bach said that illegals using public services in the state are doing things that are tantamount to lying, cheating and stealing. The state does not owe the young illegal immigrants anything, and she said that they should go back to their birth countries and apply for citizenship like everyone else because life is not fair.
“We the people will continue to fight this,” Bach said. “We the people will prevail. So tell them just to keep on dreaming.”