By Megan Poinski
In a close vote, the House of Delegates passed a bill on Friday that would give in-state college tuition to illegal immigrants, following an emotional debate fraught with tears, personal stories, anger and applause.
The vote tally was 74-66, with 23 Democrats joining all 43 Republicans in opposing the measure. The bill that passed the House is a version that already passed the Senate. However, three amendments were added to the bill by members of the House, meaning that the bill must go back to the Senate for a final vote before the General Assembly adjourns on Monday. It passed there 27-20. The electronic vote tally for Friday’s House vote was not available online as of Saturday morning.
Few debates have been so emotionally charged in this General Assembly session. Del. Anne Kaiser, D-Montgomery County, its floor leader, said that the bill was about opportunity. The students who it benefits view themselves as Americans, she said. Granting the students in-state tuition, considering the money that the state invests in their K-12 education, is the smartest thing to do for the state.
“I believe this can still be a land of opportunity,” Kaiser said.
The bill has been a lightning rod for the immigration debate during this General Assembly session. All the other bills to limit state benefits to illegal immigrants or force employers to verify legal immigration status have died in committees.
Opponents said the in-state tuition bill rewards people who come to the nation illegally, and proponents saying it offers an opportunity to get educated for young people who were brought to this country.
Del. Shirley Nathan-Pulliam, D- Baltimore County, an immigrant herself, said that 42% of the immigrants in Maryland are naturalized U.S. citizens. A quarter of the scientists and a fifth of the health care practitioners in this state are immigrants, she said.
“This is a country built by immigrants,” she said. “Unless you are an American Indian, or Native American, you are an immigrant.”
She asked if the members of the House of Delegates knew how their forefathers came to the United States. Did they come in legally?
Del. Kathy Afzali, while not an immigrant herself, is married to an Iranian immigrant, she said. Her husband got out of Iran with his life, and not much else, she said. He spent 15 years working through the legal process to become a U.S. citizen. It was not an easy journey, she said.
“If you vote for this bill, you are a slap in the face to every immigrant who comes to this great nation,” she said.
Del. Ana Sol Gutierrez, an immigrant from El Salvador, said that today’s young immigrants don’t have the opportunities that she had. She said she was able to get legal permanent residency in the United States after graduating from college in the U.S. by telling the consulate that she wanted to return to work. Nowadays, the process is much more difficult and convoluted.
Del. Patrick McDonough, an outspoken critic of illegal immigration, said that he is simply fighting for the rule of law. The rule of law, he said, requires services be granted to those with U.S. citizenship. McDonough brought the debate to the Statue of Liberty, who he said carries a law book in her left hand. (It is generally described as a tablet with the date July 4, 1776 in Roman numerals.)
“Stand up for the symbolism of Lady Liberty and what she stands for: The rule of law,” he said.
Dozens of students whom the bill would impact watched the debate from the House gallery. They gathered around the House chamber doors, cheering lawmakers as they walked out.
Diana, a senior at Broadneck High School in Arnold who did not want to give her last name because of her immigration status, said that she was excited by Friday’s vote.
“I feel accomplished,” she said. “The law actually works, and they are fighting for what’s right.”
An amendment was added to the bill during Friday’s debate that clarifies the proof of paying taxes for the student’s parents or guardians. Other amendments that would charge students using the program a fee or cap state funds to be spent on the tuition program were defeated.