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Illegal immigration: why eyes will be on Maryland this Election Day

Maryland’s in-state tuition referendum is the only big-ticket illegal-immigration issue before voters this Election Day. How Maryland goes could influence other states — and Congress.

Immigrant advocates hope the Maryland DREAM Act could help prime Washington’s discussion of immigration policy, a topic both President Obama and Mitt Romney say they want to address if they win the Nov. 6 election.

Maryland stands alone in the nation as the only state with a high-profile immigration issue going before voters Tuesday. Question 4 asks voters to endorse or reject a law that approved in-state tuition for some illegal immigrants at state universities.

Though 11 other states already allow illegal immigrants to obtain in-state tuition at state universities, no other state has asked voters to weigh in, says Ann Morse, program director of the Immigrant Policy Project at theNational Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL).

A victory Tuesday could show lawmakers that “not only did the sky not fall, [but] generally speaking it was a well-received move, not just within the immigrant community, not just within the Latino electorate, but generally,” says Clarissa Martinez de Castro, director of immigration and national campaigns at the National Council of La Raza.

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Maryland’s DREAM Act, which draws its moniker from a stalled US Senate bill that would provide a pathway to citizenship for young illegal immigrants, was signed into law by Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) in May. But conservatives put it on the ballot as a popular referendum in a bid to stop it.

The act would require illegal immigrants to graduate from a Maryland high school, provide a minimum of three years of their parents’ filed income taxes, intend to apply for permanent residency when possible, and register with the Selective Service system. If students meet those requirements, they would be able to qualify for in-state tuition for two years at a state community college, followed by two years at a state university. Estimates suggest that several hundred students a year could be eligible; they will not be counted against university caps for in-state students.

Polling has shown support as high as 60 percent for Question 4, and some observers have been surprised by the level of support for the initiative. Activists opposed to the law submitted more than double the necessary signatures to put the measure on the ballot.

“I would have predicted that question being defeated 60-40, at least,” says state Sen. Jim Brochin (D), who voted against the measure but hasn’t advocated for its defeat as a referendum. “I don’t think [opponents] anticipated the other side being able to make their case.”

But organizers in favor of Question 4 have raised more than $1 million and built a coalition that includes labor unions, immigration advocates, the NAACP, and faith groups. That’s in contrast to the opposition – a handful of state lawmakers and dedicated grass-roots activists who, as one put it, “clearly don’t have Governor O’Malley hosting dinners for us and raising funds.”

Those opposed to the measure are hoping to make a national statement Tuesday.

“If we lose, it’s, ‘Everyone expected us to lose, because Maryland is such a liberal state,’ ” says Brad Botwin, an activist running Help Save Maryland, which opposes the measure. “If we win, and I’m hopeful that we’re going to, it really shows that this is a nonpartisan issue: cost and fairness to our own kids. College is not emergency health-care. College is not K-12 [education]. This is discretionary, and they can pay their own way.”

But DREAM advocates, too, think that winning could be important beyond the state. State legislatures tend to pluck both pro- and anti-illegal immigration legislation from one another, says NSCL’s Ms. Morse, citing other red-state legislatures’ interest in Arizona’s hard-line immigration law. With the right restrictions and guidelines, Maryland’s Question 4 could spread to other like-minded states, too, advocates add.

The requirement that parents of illegal immigrants provide three years’ back taxes “has been a novel introduction,” says Kristin Ford, a spokesperson for Educating Maryland’s Kids, which is organizing support for Question 4. “That was an intentional, politically strategic move to shore up more moderate and independent support, and we see that in how well we’re polling.”

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What’s more, with both presidential candidates promising to move on immigration early in their next term, affirmation of the DREAM concept at the state level could also signal to federal lawmakers that the politics of immigration may not be as toxic as they might otherwise appear.

“You could argue that members of both parties have been shying away from the issue,” says Ms. Martinez de Castro of La Raza.

The measure’s victory also would reaffirm that while states from Maryland to Arizona are doing what they can on illegal immigration, they are often working at cross purposes and a comprehensive solution to illegal immigration is beyond their grasp.

“We want to be able to, with a victory, send a message to Congress – as a state, there are some things we can do,” says Ms. Ford, “but what we can’t do is give [undocumented immigrants] a path to citizenship, what we can’t do is protect them from deportation, what we can’t do is give them work permits.”

That, she notes, is the federal government’s job alone.