Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) signed off on legislation Tuesday that extends in-state tuition breaks to illegal immigrants, setting up a showdown with opponents who have already started gathering petition signatures to try to force a referendum on the law.
Supporters, including dozens of religious leaders, immigrant advocates, Democratic lawmakers and students, crowded into the governor’s reception room to pose for photos and celebrate during the bill signing.
“We’ve got guts,” said Del. Ana Sol Gutierrez (D-Montgomery), a longtime advocate for the bill. “We were willing to go against the tide and stand up for something that is the right thing to do.”
Sponsors had worked for years to pass legislation that would allow illegal immigrant students in Maryland to continue their education by paying in-state tuition at the state’s four-year institutions. But the measure was a tough sell even among some Democrats because of concerns about competition for a limited number of slots for residents.
In a compromise this year, sponsors rewrote the bill to initially direct undocumented students to community colleges. Those who receive an associate’s degree would then qualify for in-state tuition at four-year institutions. Students must have graduated from a Maryland high school, provide proof that their parents are state taxpayers and express their intent to become a citizen.
“We should not allow our nation’s broken immigration system to serve as an excuse to escape our basic, moral obligation to expand opportunity for all Marylanders,” said O’Malley’s labor secretary, Alex Sanchez, in a statement posted on the governor’s blog in English and Spanish.
Opponents of the bill have until June 30 to collect the more than 55,000 signatures required to hold a public vote on the law.
Del. Pat McDonough (R-Baltimore County), one of the lawmakers leading the opposition, said the petition effort is “ahead of schedule” and that he has been overwhelmed by the level of “passion and rage” against the measure.
The in-state tuition bill was one of dozens the governor signed into law Tuesday. Among the other bills was a measure intended to create reliability standards and penalties for the state’s electric companies in response to the extended power outages Pepco customers experienced last winter.
In a boon to wine aficionados in Maryland, O’Malley also signed off on legislation that will allow residents to have their favorite bottles of wine shipped directly to their doorsteps.
This post has been updated since it was first published.