If passed, Maryland would become the first state nationwide to approve a form of the legislation, known as the Dream Act, by a popular vote. Lawmakers in 13 states have adopted similar policies, although none has faced a statewide test at the ballot box. Federal Dream Act legislation has for years remained stalled in Congress.
In Maryland, the poll finds fully three-quarters of Democrats and 58 percent of independent voters supporting the measure, which the General Assembly narrowly passed last year and Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) signed into law.
Republicans, some of whom led a petition drive to force the measure to referendum, are against the idea by about 2 to 1, with most expressing strong opposition, according to the poll.
Sharp racial and educational divides also underlie voters’ views on the matter. White voters divide roughly evenly on the subject, while non-whites favor it by a huge margin — 75 percent to 19 percent.
More than seven in 10 voters with postgraduate degrees say they would vote yes, including a majority who say they feel strongly about it.
Among white Marylanders, those with college degrees tend to support the measure, 56 percent to 40 percent, but non-college whites tilt the other way, 42 percent yes and 54 percent no.
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, annual tuition is $7,175 for in-state students, compared with $25,554 for out-of-state students.
State analysts have estimated that the program could cost taxpayers $3.5 million annually and require universities to cover the cost of lost tuition. Others have estimated that the measure would lead to lower rates of incarceration and other economic benefits to the state.
The poll comes as proponents have waged a lopsided campaign in support of the measure. State and national labor and teachers unions have contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to a committee that has run television ads.
Immigrant rights and other grass-roots groups have also mobilized hundreds of supporters, including scores of clergy, to speak in favor of the measure. Leaders of the state’s largest public universities have also publicly backed the measure.
Although the law was successfully petitioned to referendum, opponents have since done little to press their cause. They have not formed a committee to raise money and have held only a handful of public events, believing simply that if placed before voters, a majority would oppose the idea.
Maryland’s vote is the first since Dream Act policies regained national attention this year during the course of the Republican presidential primaries. Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, the eventual nominee, repeatedly said he opposed a policy such as the one signed into law by Texas Gov. Rick Perry, calling it a magnet for illegal immigration.
Emanuel Walker, 62, of Accokeek said that from his experience as a 19-year-old legal immigrant from Jamaica, the costs would be more than paid for with the loyalty of illegal immigrants.
“They will work all the time to give back — to prove that the risk the country took wasn’t a risk at all,” Walker said. “I think they will pay it forward. The feeling will be that America opened its arms and accepted them as one of ours.”
While there is a high level of support for Maryland’s Dream Act, there is also widespread — but not deep — concern that the measure’s passage would make it harder for legal residents to attend the state’s colleges and universities.
Overall, 58 percent of voters are at least somewhat concerned on the topic, and among the third of all voters who say they are “very concerned,” opposition to the measure hits 70 percent.
“Classes are so limited right now, it will only take up positions for legal residents,” said Robert Anderson, 79.
The telephone poll was conducted Oct. 11-15 among a random sample of 1,106 Maryland adults. Interviews were conducted on conventional land-line and cellular telephones, and in English and Spanish. The samples of 934 registered voters and 843 likely voters both have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus four percentage points.
Rachel Karas, Peyton M. Craighill and Scott Clement contributed to this report.