Among the landmark referendums that could alter life in the Free State, however, the effect of Question 4 may be the least well understood. How many illegal immigrants will go to college under the law? And at what cost to taxpayers?
Will illegal immigrants overrun Maryland campuses, as opponents charge? Or as backers believe, will their numbers be barely noticed and their higher education ultimately become a benefit to the public?
With campaigns for and against beginning final pushes this weekend, the fate of Maryland’s version of the Dream Act will rest in part on which side successfully fills in the blanks that helped push the measure to the ballot.
After Maryland’s legislature narrowly approved the measure last year, conservative lawmakers seized in part on its unknown costs to collect more than 100,000 petition signatures — twice as many as needed — to force the first referendum on a Maryland law in 20 years.
Since then, polls show that proponents have gained the upper hand in what, if passed, would be the first statewide “Dream”-related legislation approved by a popular vote.
They have marshaled a growing army of grass-roots advocates. Undocumented students who have attained high honors in Maryland high schools but then couldn’t afford to go on to college have revealed their identities at news conferences. Catholic, protestant, Muslim and Jewish clergy have joined to preach a common message that charity and parity in public college costs could pay dividends in the form of productive, tax-paying adult immigrants.
Proponents have built their lead while focusing little on numbers or costs, citing the only state study that said the measure most likely would not affect that many students or cost all that much — at least initially.
But proponents acknowledge that they have little faith in the state-generated numbers, and the potential range is vast: Undocumented immigrants could number in the hundreds, or in the thousands, at state schools within a few years.
Under Maryland’s Dream Act, students who can prove that they have attended Maryland high schools for at least three years and that either they or their guardians have filed state taxes would be allowed to enroll at community colleges at in-state rates.
Those who attain an associate’s degree or 60 credit hours could transfer to a four-year institution. At the University of Maryland, tuition is $7,175 for in-state students, compared with $25,554 for out-of-state students.
A nonpartisan fiscal analysis generated for members of the General Assembly before last year’s vote concluded there was little information available on the number of eligible illegal immigrant students, and therefore costs could not be “reliably estimated.”