By Len Lazarick
There was more than the usual hubbub at the bill signing ceremony Tuesday when more than 100 people crowded behind Gov. Martin O’Malley for four sets of photos as he signed a bill granting in-state college tuition rates to illegal immigrants who graduate from Maryland high schools.
From senators and clergymen to high school students in T-shirts who wouldn’t give their last names, the mood was joyous as the crowd celebrated years of struggle, phone banks and lobbying.
“It’s one of the happiest days I’ve had in a very long time,” said bill sponsor Sen. Victor Ramirez at a party afterward in the nearby backyard of the offices of the Maryland Catholic Conference, which had strongly backed the bill.
Opponents of the measure who have mounted a petition drive to put the bill on the 2012 ballot were not on hand, except for a few Republican delegates there to see their own legislation signed.
“Our presence is out on the streets,” Del. Pat McDonough, honorary chairman of the drive, said from his Middle River home. “We can’t stop O’Malley from his insanity.”
McDonough said they would release numbers on Sunday about how far they’ve come in amassing the 56,000 signatures they need to collect by June 30. “The pace is enough to get us over the top,” McDonough said, even presuming many of the petition signatures will be invalidated. Del. Nic Kipke, the Anne Arundel County chair of the effort, said it was “upwards of 10,000.”
But for supporters of the measure it was time to enjoy their victory and remember why it happened.
“We stand for equal tuition rates because it is the just thing to do,” said the Rev. Paul Johnson of Grace United Methodist Church in Takoma Park.
The many high school and college students included supporters like Amanda Fisher of Bladensburg High, whose best friend, Angie, came here from Guatemala when she was eight. “I never thought it was fair that she never had the same opportunity as I had,” Fisher said.
Monsignor Mark Brennan of St. Martin of Tours parish in Gaithersburg remembered growing up in a segregated Prince George’s County where “children of color had to be educated separately.”
“I see this effort as part of that great [civil rights] movement,” said Brennan, whose parish offers five weekend masses in Spanish, one in French and six in English. Remembering the Gospel story of the Good Samaritan, he said, “We’re not going to leave our immigrant young people handicapped and beaten up on the side of the road.”
Taking the place of citizens
But Kipke said, “This bill offends people because there’s the fear that illegal immigrants might take the place of a U.S. citizen.”
The bill requires students who were brought to this country illegally to have attended a Maryland high school and graduated. Their parents or guardians must have paid state taxes, and they must be on a path to citizenship.
They must also attend open enrollment community colleges first before going to a four-year school. But Kipke noted that even some programs at community colleges have limited enrollment, like the 80 slots for nursing at Anne Arundel Community College.
The delegate has been going door to door in his district soliciting petition signatures, and he said some people have already printed the petitions off the Internet and encouraged others to sign.
“It’s really kind of cool seeing how many people are getting involved,” Kipke said.
McDonough and Kipke both worked the petitions last weekend at the Springfest in Ocean City where they were attending the state Republican convention. Kipke said they could have signed up even more than the 1,400 registered voters they got, but didn’t have the manpower.
McDonough is surprised by “the level of passion on this issue” and finds, “You don’t get any opposition.”
State GOP chairman Alex Mooney sent out an e-mail to party supporters Tuesday urging them to sign the petition online – and contribute to the party to elect more Republican lawmakers.
“The fact Democrats would force Marylanders to subsidize for tuition benefits for illegal aliens when so many Marylanders cannot even afford to put their own children through college is outrageous,” Mooney said.
Alex Sanchez, O’Malley’s secretary of Labor, Licensing and Regulation, sent out an e-mail about the bill signing entirely in Spanish. His statement is posted on the governor’s official website in English and Spanish.
“In Maryland, we believe in the dignity of every individual, and that there is no such thing as a spare Marylander. Today, Governor O’Malley reaffirmed that belief as Maryland joins 11 other states – including California, New York, Utah and Texas – in extending access to an affordable college education for all high school graduates in our state.”