At Maryland hearing on tuition bill, young illegal immigrants make emotional appeals

Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 16, 2011; 7:50 PM

They watch music videos on YouTube, crave chicken sandwiches from McDonald's and load up on Advanced Placement classes at school. They have spent most of their young lives in Maryland, striving for success at local high schools. But because they are undocumented immigrants, when it comes time to graduate, they must pay three times the tuition charged to fellow classmates to attend one of the state's public colleges and universities.

Immigration advocates and dozens of students made highly personal appeals to a state Senate committee Wednesday, asking lawmakers to treat these teenagers as they would any other graduate of a Maryland high school: by giving them in-state tuition breaks.

A bill introduced by Sen. Victor R. Ramirez (D-Prince George's) would offer in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants who attended at least two years of high school in Maryland and whose parents pay taxes. Students would have to express an intent to apply for legal status in the United States.

"This bill holds the hopes and dreams of hundreds of students," a Prince George's County high school senior, Jacqueline Midence, told the committee. Midence arrived from El Salvador in 2007 and is part of her school's National Honor Society. "Most of us here today did not have a choice in coming to the United States. The choice that I have made is to contribute."

But with tensions running high nationwide over illegal immigration and fierce competition for admission to the University of Maryland and other four-year institutions, advocates may have to accept a compromise backed by Senate leaders.

"We've got to find a way to accommodate the interests of these constituents no matter how they got here but also recognize that there are people whose grandparents and parents played by the rules and now cannot get into one of Maryland's four-year colleges," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert).

Ten other states, including California, Illinois, New York and Texas, have in-state tuition measures on the books. A bill similar to the one being considered in Maryland passed both chambers in 2003, but it was vetoed by then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R).

Strong opposition remains among Republican lawmakers, who have introduced a series of measures this session that target illegal immigrants.

At the Senate hearing Wednesday, Sen. Bryan W. Simonaire (R-Anne Arundel) said he has reservations about using taxpayer money to subsidize "those who have not come to America properly. There is no law in Maryland prohibiting them from going to college. This bill is just trying to give them a break."

That sentiment was echoed by a group of citizens opposed to the bill who also attended the hearing.

"I have no problem with these kids going to college," said Bernadette Sgorski of Harford County. "But I do not want my taxpayer dollars used to subsidize their tuition."

The measure has the backing of the University System of Maryland, a coalition of religious leaders and county executives Isiah Leggett (D) of Montgomery and Rushern L. Baker III (D) of Prince George's, both of whom testified at the hearing.

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