Opponents of immigrant tuition say they have enough signatures for first deadline

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Michael Dawson and Peter Oliphant help collect signatures on Route 40 in Cecil County.

Michael Dawson and Peter Oliphant help collect signatures on Route 40 in Cecil County.

By Glynis Kazanjian

For MarylandReporter.com

Michael Dawson and Peter Oliphant help collect signatures on Route 40 in Cecil County.

Michael Dawson and Peter Oliphant help collect signatures on Route 40 in Cecil County.

With a week to go, the group leading the effort to repeal in-state tuition for illegal immigrants said they have enough valid signatures to meet the first benchmark of 18,579 signatures by May 31. Plus there are 10,000 to 15,000 more where it is asking voters to fix minor problems with the petitions.

“I can tell you we have over 18,000 valid signatures,” said Kari Snyder, legislative aide to Del. Neil Parrott, R-Washington County, a leader of the referendum effort.

In-state tuition for undocumented high school graduates was signed into law two weeks ago by Gov. Martin O’Malley, after close votes on the measure in the final hours of the legislative session April 11.

Snyder says the group has their own internal, pre-validating process which relies on a four page signature verification document.  So far the group has collected between 28,000 and 33,000 signed petitions.

“There are 10,000 to 15,000 signatures that aren’t valid,” Snyder said.  “Some petitions are missing the date, some are missing an initial.”

Petitions with errors are being sent back with a request to correct the error.

“I have received word from MD Petition Headquarters that a number of petition forms submitted by individuals or families were done incorrectly,” Brad Botwin of Help Save Maryland, wrote in an e-mail to supporters last week.  “In most cases, but not all, the submitter forgot to include both pages (signature page and bill text page).

Tea Party groups, Republicans and some Democrats are participating in the petition gathering process.  The state Republican Party has sent out e-mails and mailings encouraging supporters to sign the petitions and contribute to the party.

The group has to collect 55,736 valid signatures by June 30 in order to place on the 2012 ballot the issue of whether or not illegal immigrants should be allowed to pay in-state college tuition rates at community colleges and eventually at four-year institutions.

Snyder says the results of gathered petition signatures will ultimately be challenged by either side. She said she expects the bill’s lead sponsor Sen. Victor Ramirez, or CASA de Maryland, an immigrants’ rights advocacy group, to legally the challenge the results if MD Petitions.com succeeds in gathering enough signatures.

“If we are successful in getting the signatures, they will take us to court,” Snyder said.  “If we do not get enough valid signatures [because so many were rejected], we will challenge.  Either way, it’s going to go to court.”

“It’ll be fair to the process to make sure that the signatures are valid,” Ramirez said. “We’ve got to make sure they’re following the proper criteria, but we’ll cross that bridge when we get there,” said Ramirez, whose district includes Hyattsville.  “Out of all the things we have to do in Maryland, this is important, but we’ve got bigger fish to fry than trying to deny access to Maryland high school graduates.”

CORRECTED: Under the new law, Maryland high school graduates can pay in-state college tuition rates if they’ve attended high school for three years and graduated; prove they or their family have filed a Maryland income tax return paid federal income taxes; and, agree to apply for citizenship when eligible. Students, or their families, must also pay taxes while the student is enrolled in college. After completing 60 credits at  a community college, a student is then is eligible to pay in-state tuition at a Maryland four-year higher education institution.

The Department of Legislative Services issued a revised fiscal note last week to take into account a last minute amendment requiring illegal immigrants to be counted as out-of-state students in determining the permissible percentage of out-of-state students, which is capped at 30%.

At most state universities, out-of-state students make up no more than 10% of undergraduates “so the impact of the bill will not be significant,” the legislative analysis said. “The impact may be significant at those campuses with out-of-state enrollment of 20% or more: Towson University; University of Maryland, College Park; and University of Maryland Eastern Shore.

“For these institutions, tuition revenues may decrease significantly depending on how many undocumented students enroll and pay in-state tuition. However, to the extent undocumented students would not have otherwise enrolled because they could not afford to pay out-of-state tuition, or the institutions increase undergraduate enrollment overall, the impact may be minimal.”

The law will become effective July 1, unless the required number of valid signatures is collected, in which case, the new law will be put before the voters on the 2012 ballot.