CUMBERLAND — Illegal and undocumented immigrants in Maryland could soon receive the same tuition breaks at many state colleges to which any citizen of the state is entitled.
“It’s the right thing to do at the end of the day,” said Sen. Victor Ramirez, a Frostburg State University graduate and the lead sponsor of Senate Bill 167. “We want the strongest and most educated work force as possible,” he said. The bill, with some amendments, was reported out of committee with a favorable recommendation last week. The bill will now be considered by the full Senate. The bill has been nicknamed the DREAM Act, after a similar federal proposal that didn’t get through Congress.
The bill only grants in-state tuition for graduates of Maryland high schools or those who have obtained a GED. Additional requirements are that a student or his parents prove they’ve had Maryland tax withholding during the year before the student graduated from high school and that the students have applied to a college within three years of high school graduation. The main amendment to the bill limits the initial in-state tuition fees to community colleges. Students can move on at the in-state rate after gaining an associate degree or earning 60 credits, Ramirez said.
Ramirez thinks the bill will be well-received by the full Senate. “I am optimistic, we can no longer afford not to pass this legislation.” The students are playing by the rules and doing what they’re asked to do, Ramirez said, and shouldn’t be penalized for a situation they did not create.
The cost differences for in-state tuition are significant. Proposed tuition and fees at Frostburg State for 2011 are $17,020 for out-of-state students per year and $7,128 for in-state students. A similar cost breakdown is reported for other state schools by the independent Department of Legislative Services. At Garrett College, an in-county student paid $3,315 for a 30-credit year in 2010, while an out-of-county student paid $7,095 and an out-of-state student paid $8,265.
Sen. George Edwards, while sympathetic to the plight of children of illegal immigrants, doesn’t think the bill is the right thing to do.
“They will take slots from citizens of Maryland. Maryland is already paying a lot of higher education costs,” he said. “The fact of the matter is that they are here illegally.” Edwards pointed out that in the past few years legislators changed state law to prevent illegal immigrants from obtaining driver’s licenses and wonders why legislators would “turn around” and pass Senate Bill 167. The local senator was also concerned about the legislation’s costs to taxpayers.
Before offering his comments, Edwards cautioned that he hadn’t seen the amended bill. He also had some thoughts on the role of the federal government in the immigration issue.
“We need to do something to speed up the process for citizenship. We’re a nation of immigrants,” Edwards said. Helping people become citizens needs to be tied to stopping illegal immigration, an area where Edwards believes the federal government is letting down the states and the nation.
“In my opinion, they are not doing a lot of things they ought to be doing,” Edwards said, like enforcing the border with Mexico.
The costs of the bill are a matter of dispute and interpretation, with Ramirez taking the long-term view of the economic effects. A fiscal and policy note on the bill prepared by the Department of Legislative Services states that the bill would cost $3.5 million by fiscal 2016. Almost all of the increased expenses would be for state aid to community colleges for added enrollment.
Ten other states have passed laws allowing undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition at public institutions of higher education, according to the Department of Legislative Services. The department says that according to media reports, only Texas has received a sizable increase in illegal immigrants attending state colleges. Ramirez said that a recent study in California showed only about a 1 percent increase in students since the passage of the California law.
“They (the community colleges) can handle the increase,” Ramirez said.
Offering education benefits to the undocumented students will get them higher-paying jobs and contribute to the state’s tax base, Ramirez said.
“Why wouldn’t you want those students in school? They are Maryland residents,” he said.
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