ANNAPOLIS – A bill allowing illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition at Maryland’s public colleges and universities moved a step closer to passage Wednesday, despite an attempt in the House to gut it.
The House debate was lively, with proponents arguing the bill’s intent is simple: to put children of undocumented immigrants on a level playing field with their American peers. But detractors categorized the legislation as un-American and unfair to out-of-state citizens who pay significantly higher fees to attend Maryland schools.
Under House Bill 253, sponsored by about 40 lawmakers, illegal immigrants who have attended a Maryland high school for three years and earned a diploma here are exempt from paying out-of-state tuition rates. The bill stipulates students must apply to college within five years of graduation, and they must sign affidavits stating they will file for permanent residency.
Supporters contend the proposal provides opportunities to children of undocumented immigrants who grew up in Maryland but may not be able to afford the price of higher tuition.
The difference between in-state and out-of-state annual tuition ranges from a low of $4,764 at the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore, to a high of $9,209 at the University of Baltimore.
Delegate Victor Ramirez, D-Prince George’s, urged lawmakers Wednesday to remember how hard they have worked as American citizens.
“I think we have to recognize that we’re talking about children, giving them the same opportunity,” Ramirez said. “And we can’t turn our backs now just because we have something.”
The House passed the bill with tentative approval, turning down an amendment from Delegate Herb McMillan, R-Anne Arundel. McMillan’s proposal, which failed 41-87, would have essentially gutted the bill to say only legal immigrants could receive the benefit of in-state rates.
“If you’re a United States serviceman and you’re stationed in Maryland, you’re going to pay out-of-state tuition,” McMillan said afterward. “Under this law, an illegal alien will pay in-state tuition . . . And here we’re going to war.”
Despite the complaints, the bill has drawn a favorable reaction from officials at the University System of Maryland. It doesn’t require state schools to change their enrollment ratios and isn’t likely to burden the system financially, said Joseph Bryce, the system’s associate vice chancellor for government relations.
“It expands the pool of people who are eligible,” Bryce said. “Nothing (in the bill) requires that anyone be admitted.”
USM spokesman Chris Hart said the office does not keep records of how many of its applicants are not U.S. citizens.
Immigration advocates have expressed support for the bill, which they say is patterned after legislation in Texas, California and a handful of other states.
Children who work hard in school shouldn’t be penalized because their parents are not legal citizens, said John Estrella, an advocacy associate with the American Immigration Lawyers Association in Washington.
“This will allow them to realize the educational dream,” he said. “The ability to go to college gives them the incentive to graduate.”