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Pure Onsense

Debating the Maryland DREAM Act

Scott Zuke

(August, 2011)  After a major petition drive, opponents of a new Maryland law that would grant in-state tuition rates to undocumented immigrants attending public colleges appear to have succeeded in halting the policy until it can be put up to a statewide referendum. According to the Washington Post, this is the first time such a petition has forced a referendum vote in Maryland in 20 years.

The immigrant tuition bill, originally titled SB 167, passed in the General Assembly in April and was due to take effect in July. It was a jolt to Marylandís underrepresented conservative population, especially here in Frederick County where illegal immigration has been a heated topic in recent years.

There are a range of passionate and seemingly legitimate complaints against the policy. The most basic fiscal argument is that Maryland canít afford to add a new education subsidy expected to cost a few million dollars over the next five years and continuing to grow from there. Even if it balloons beyond projections, though, itíd be a relatively negligible fraction of the state budget. The cost complaint is thus pretty flimsy except to the most staunch government spending opponents, especially as it ignores the benefits of increasing the educated tax base.

The more frequent and understandable argument is that in-state tuition benefits shouldnít be granted to illegal foreigners when they arenít available to legal residents of other states, thus putting American students at a disadvantage. The text of the bill does not support this view, however. Though they may not have legal residency status, the students eligible for the tuition break are legitimate members of their communities and the state. The student must have graduated from a Maryland high school after attending for at least three years, and throughout that time, his or her parent or guardian must have paid state income taxes. They must continue to do so as long as the student attends community college. Legal or not, these students have resided in and contributed to the state, unlike out-of-state US citizens.

Another popular argument against the policy is that it will make Maryland a "sanctuary state," essentially rewarding illegal immigration and encouraging more of it. I have not found evidence to support this. It would probably surprise many opponents to learn that in-state tuition benefits to undocumented residents was first implemented in Texas in 2001 and has since spread to 9 other states, including California and New Mexico. As of 2010, Texas Governor Rick Perry, a potential GOP candidate for a 2012 presidential run, backed the policy on the grounds that the benefiting students are now on a path to citizenship. The Maryland law requires all recipients of the aid to sign an affidavit stating they will apply for legal residency when possible.

And while Texas has seen an increase in the number of undocumented residents taking advantage of the policy, illegal immigration from Mexico has been on a steep decline in recent years, slowing to a near stop according to recent non-partisan polling.

Todd Eberly, an assistant professor of political science at St. Maryís College of Maryland, makes a strong moral and social case in favor of the policy in a post for The FreeStater Blog: "There are approximately 2 million undocumented children living in the United States today - these children were born outside the United States, but brought here illegally by their parents at a young age. These kids were raised in America, educated in our schools, they are Americans. Many of these kids would consider America to be their home country and their actual home country to be a foreign land."

I think this is what the policyís opponents continually forget amid their incessant cries of, "What part of ĎILLEGALí donít you understand?" These are children who have done nothing wrong, have lived with a secondary status in their adopted homeland, and have no connections or prospects back in their parentsí home country. It makes no sense to send them away. And since they are already legally guaranteed to receive a free public education regardless of residency status, it is far more sensible to help them along with their education and their efforts to gain legal status so that they can achieve gainful employment.

These arguments will not convince the most outspoken opponents of the policy. Nothing will, and thatís how it goes in a democracy. The question, now that the bill is being put up to a referendum, is which side will be able to convince the majority of Maryland voters? In this I am worried that the bill will have a publicity problem, and the quick success of the petition drive is cause for concern. When put into the short summary form that most voters will read, will the nuances of the policy discussed above make it in? Or will it come off the way many have oversimplified it: a tax-payer funded subsidy benefiting illegal immigrants?

It will be an interesting test run for a kind of direct democracy more common in California than here in Maryland. If the petition signatures are confirmed as valid and the referendum takes place, it will be an opportunity for state Republicans to explore a new tool for exercising power in a Democrat-dominated General Assembly, which Eberly sees as a bad sign for the prospects of getting same-sex marriage approved in Maryland in the near future.

All of this adds up to a democracy-proponent like myself becoming a bit conflicted. Consider Marylandís petition rules: on one hand, some 2% of the population being able to hold up legislation that passed in the General Assembly until a referendum vote seems like too low a threshold, but on the other hand, the rules for validating signatures on those petitions (as we have recently seen in Frederick Countyís charter board debate) are absurdly strict and do not respect or reflect the intentions of those citizens who sign. If the referendum on the in-state tuition policy is a sign of more direct democracy in Marylandís future, let us hope it can also democratically improve the whole procedure.

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