WASHINGTON – Yves Gomes would rush home after school when he was younger to play one of his favorite video games, Madden NFL Football.
“Video games. Chill. Basketball. That’s all I cared about,” said Gomes, a “typical middle-class kid” until he and his family faced the possibility of deportation.
Thanks to the Maryland Dream Act, hundreds of mostly young undocumented immigrants like Gomes will get a chance at something most “typical middle-class kids” can receive, a more affordable college education. Gomes is majoring in biochemistry at the University of Maryland, College Park.
But the law, which took effect in December, is only one benefit that most legal residents can enjoy. Dreamers like Gomes — often brought by their parents to the U.S. — are not eligible for government or bank loans and scholarships, face endless difficulties in applying for citizenship and struggle to find work permits and employment.
In 2006, when Gomes was 16, his parents’ pending case for permanent religious asylum in America was denied.
“That was the first time I ever became undocumented,” Gomes said. “It was hard, especially to watch my mom struggle. My parents were well-regarded.”
A neighbor cried when he found out that Gomes’ mother, a college professor, was deported to India.
“It wasn’t until my parents faced deportation that I was forced to share my story,” said Gomes, who graduated with a 4.4. GPA from Paint Branch High School in Burtonsville.
The event was a turning point for Gomes, who thought of himself as American, and who was shy. With his parents gone and his immigration status in question, Gomes was forced to fight for something he wanted desperately – to stay in the country he’s been in since he was 1.
Gomes’ lawyer advised him to spread his story, so he spoke in churches and rallies and to television reporters. The Department of Homeland Security eventually designated his case low priority, halting his deportation process.
Going public about one’s undocumented status is known as “coming out of the shadows” in the immigrant community.
Today, he affords college through a private scholarship, and now, the Maryland Dream Act, which will save him about $19,000 a year. But his immigration status is still pending in the background and his parents are still gone.
He is one of an estimated 1,294 undocumented immigrants in a Maryland college, according a the study by the Maryland Institute for Policy Analysis and Research.
The Maryland Dream Act was passed in 2011, but its opponents quickly petitioned it to referendum, gathering 104,728 signatures in around two months.
However, groups like Casa de Maryland, an immigrant-rights organization, and activists — including Gomes and other dreamers — campaigned heavily in support of the law. The law — Question 4 on the November ballot — was approved 1,123,536 (59 percent) to 852,937 (41 percent), according to the Maryland State Board of Elections.
To qualify for in-state tuition, dreamers are required to sign an affidavit saying they will apply for citizenship within 30 days after becoming eligible, provide transcripts proving they attended a Maryland high school for three years and show proof of high school graduation, as well as document that they or their parent guardian paid state-income taxes for the past three years.
Students must also obtain 60 credits from a Maryland community college before applying to a four-year university.
One of the law’s main issues is its cost, opponents say. Maryland dreamers can cost the state thousands per semester depending on what school they attend. At Montgomery College, in-state tuition is about $2,000 cheaper than out-of-state.
These costs, according to the study by the Maryland Institute for Policy Analysis and Research, are far outweighed by their benefits to the economy via jobs and taxes, with an estimated net-gain of more than $60 million annually.
However, Brad Botwin, director of Help Save Maryland, a non-profit organization which actively fought the law, believes the study contains “cooked” stats.
“About 50 percent of college grads are getting jobs,” he said. “They estimated 100 percent. They assumed every single student gets a job when they’re done.”
Marv Mandell, professor of public policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and one of the study’s two authors, said he did not project full employment.
But “it does make the assumption that they will have the same unemployment rate as other people with similar educational attainment,” he said. “It (also) assumes that they will all remain around in Maryland.”
Botwin not only questions if the dreamers will get jobs in Maryland, but if they will get jobs at all.
Many younger undocumented immigrants currently obtain work permits through Deferred Action, a program authorized by President Barack Obama last year. The program gives out and renews permits every two years on a case-by-case basis.
“Obama isn’t going to be president forever,” Botwin said, adding that businesses won’t hire someone who can’t legally work, making a subsidized college degree useless. “I had to educate them K-12 for free. I had to subsidize their college education and now, I guess I’m going to pay for their unemployment.”
Claudia Quinonez, 18 and undocumented, worries about employment, but is optimistic that national immigration reform will pass some day.
Like Gomes, she thought of herself like everyone else, even after her mother told her when she was 12 to never tell anyone about their immigration status.
“I was in the eighth-grade when I first realized it was an issue,” said Quinonez, whose family is from Bolivia.
Quinonez was accepted into a private high school on a scholarship at that time thanks to her grades and recommendations from her teachers, but when her documentation was brought up, she was refused entry.
Majoring in biology at Montgomery College, Quinonez hopes to go to Johns Hopkins University for medical school to become a neuroscientist. She has saved thousands through the Maryland Dream Act.
All of her six courses are scheduled on Tuesdays and Thursdays to free up time to hang out with her friends and work as an intern at Casa de Maryland.
When she came out of the shadows at 17, it was like “a weight was off my chest.”
“I’m just fighting and sacrificing so many things,” she said.
Quinonez was arrested Aug. 1 for blocking traffic at a peaceful protest for immigration reform outside the Capitol.
Botwin and other critics of the Maryland Dream Act aren’t just worried about the costs to the state, but whether it makes common sense.
“We were opposed to it from a fairness standpoint, primarily,” Botwin said. “These are people who are not citizens and you’re giving them a higher status than you would someone from New Jersey who is coming to Maryland” to get their higher education.