But a successful petition drive led by a handful of Maryland Republican lawmakers appears all but certain to stall the effort.
Opponents say they are on pace to turn in a combined 100,000 signatures by Thursday, even though state elections officials say they have certified most of the nearly 56,000 needed to suspend the law and send it to a statewide referendum in November 2012. The law had been scheduled to take effect Friday, but it has been suspended while officials await a final tally on the signatures.
“People want to enforce immigration law, not skirt around it,” said Del. Neil C. Parrott (R-Washington). “This was a highly divisive bill with bipartisan opposition that barely passed. It’s important to allow the residents of Maryland to have the final say.”
The law was approved narrowly in April by the state’s legislature and was signed into law last month by Gov. Martin O’Malley (D), making Maryland at least the 10th state to offer in-state tuition breaks to its undocumented students.
But the law appears to also be the first in Maryland that voters will decide at the polls in 20 years. The last law petitioned to a statewide referendum, which ensured abortion rights in the state, was affirmed by voters in 1992.
The signature-gathering effort to repeal the tuition law is expected to draw court challenges. But the rare success that opponents appear to be having in easily crossing the threshold for a referendum has sparked debate in Annapolis about whether Maryland’s Democratic leadership overreached in approving the measure.
In addition to Republicans, thousands of Democrats have signed on to oppose the aid for immigrants in the party’s strongholds of Baltimore and Prince George’s County.
“A referendum is extremely rare and certainly a statement of the times we are in,” said Don Norris, chairman of the public policy department at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County.
“With a bad economy and lots of people being angry, I think this is most clearly related to the economy. But we’ll see. Immigration has never been a mainstream issue in Maryland. Maybe that is changing and this will push it to the forefront.”
Michael Fix, an immigration expert at the Urban Institute in the District, said that if voters in a traditionally blue state such as Maryland repeal the law, it could affect debates in other states and possibly the debate in Congress about whether to move forward with a national DREAM Act.