They came to the United States as children with little idea, if any, of what it meant to overstay a visa. They enrolled in public schools, learned English, earned high school diplomas. Like many of their classmates, they pondered college choices.
But as undocumented immigrants in Maryland, they then had to confront the reality that they must pay two to three times what former high school classmates pay to attend the state’s public colleges. It is a rule that, for many students of modest means, puts a college education out of reach.
With one exception: Montgomery College.
That is why Josue Aguiluz, 21, born in Honduras, and Ricardo Campos, 23, born in El Salvador — and numerous others like them — landed at the community college. There, they study and wait for a verdict from Maryland voters on a Nov. 6 ballot measure that may determine whether they can afford to advance to a four-year college.
“I know people in Maryland believe in education,” Campos said the other day at the student center on the Rockville campus. “I know they are going to vote for Question 4. I’m hanging on their vote.”
Question 4 asks voters to affirm or strike down a law that the legislature passed last year, known as Maryland’s version of the “Dream Act,” which granted certain undocumented immigrants the ability to obtain in-state tuition at public colleges and universities. The subsidy comes with conditions. Among them: To take advantage, students must first go to a two-year community college.
The law was pushed to a referendum after opponents mounted a lightning petition drive that showed the depth of division over illegal immigration across the state and the nation. Critics say discounting tuition for students who lack permission to be in the country is an unjustified giveaway of what they believe will amount to tens of millions of tax dollars a year.
“When an undocumented student enters the system, it is a net loss of revenue,” said Del. Patrick L. McDonough (R-Baltimore County). “It is a simple mathematical argument. Put your emotion and your passion aside, and get out your calculator.”
There is no count of the number of students statewide who would be eligible for benefits under the law. Estimates range from several hundred to a few thousand.
A Washington Post poll this month found that a solid majority of likely voters favored the law: 59 percent support it, and 35 percent are opposed. If the law is affirmed, Maryland would join about a dozen other states with laws or policies providing in-state tuition benefits to undocumented immigrants. Texas became the first in 2001.
Experts say Maryland’s version is the only one that requires students to go through community college first. That means the state’s 16 community colleges could become a pipeline for undocumented students in public higher education if the measure is approved.
Montgomery College is already a magnet for such students. It offers the same low tuition to any student who graduated within the past three years from a Montgomery County high school. Immigration status, for those recent graduates, is not a factor. Full-time tuition at the in-county rate is $2,688 a year. For students from out of state, tuition is $7,536.
At other community colleges in Maryland, undocumented students must pay the out-of-state rate.
Last year, taxpayers represented by an organization called Judicial Watch alleged in a lawsuit that Montgomery College’s tuition policy violates state and federal law. A Montgomery County Circuit Court judge dismissed the case, which is pending before the Maryland Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court.
Montgomery College President DeRionne P. Pollard said the policy is consistent with the school’s mission.
“We say, ‘Send us everyone who can come here, and we provide education to you — the underserved, the undereducated, the returning homemaker, the dislocated worker,’ ” Pollard said. That includes, she said, immigrants with a recent Montgomery high school diploma. “That’s our job. It’s about access.”
About 27,000 students are enrolled this fall for credit, and thousands more take non-credit classes.
For Aguiluz, the college offered an entry point to what he hopes will be a career in accounting.
Aguiluz came to Maryland in June 2005, at age 13, with his mother and three brothers. He graduated from James Hubert Blake High School in 2010. He knew that he would be charged out-of-state tuition at a four-year college, which was for him prohibitive. So he enrolled at Montgomery College. He works at a cafe in the District to help pay the bills.
Eventually, Aguiluz wants to transfer to a school such as the University of Maryland at College Park. There, in-state tuition is $7,175 a year. The out-of-state rate is $25,554. Aguiluz is counting on voters to help him reach his goal.
“I wish they would understand,” Aguiluz said. “All we’re aiming for is education. I don’t think that has a negative impact at all.”
In the run-up to the vote, Aguiluz’s older brother Jose, who is also an undocumented student at the college, is drumming up support for the Dream Act.
On Wednesday, Jose Aguiluz distributed fliers and buttons and collected voter pledge cards on the college’s Takoma Park-Silver Spring campus. Of course, he can’t vote himself. Nor would the older brother qualify for Dream Act tuition benefits, apparently ineligible because of the dates he was enrolled in public schools.
“It’s for my brothers,” Jose Aguiluz said. “So they can have a shot.”
To obtain in-state tuition from a public four-year college, undocumented students would be required under the law to earn an associate’s degree or at least 60 credits from a community college. Students would also have to meet other criteria, including providing documentation that they, or their parents or guardians, had filed state income tax returns.
The law says that undocumented students who receive in-state tuition at a four-year school would not be counted as in-state students for enrollment purposes. Proponents say that provision ensures U.S. citizens in Maryland don’t lose coveted spots at selective schools to undocumented students; opponents say the provision is toothless.
Campos came to the United States at age 12 with his family, arriving in California. They settled in Maryland when he was 14. A bone cancer survivor, Campos graduated from John F. Kennedy High School in 2010, and he is now studying biology at the college. His grades were good enough last fall to make the dean’s list. He hopes to transfer to the University of Maryland Baltimore County.
Barbara Hoberman, a biology professor at the college, called Campos a model student. “Not only is he a hard worker, but he has a very magnetic, charismatic personality,” she said. Hoberman said she supports the law.
“When you educate someone, I don’t care where they’re from or how they came here,” Hoberman said. “As an educator, I want to impart my knowledge to them.”
Opponents acknowledge that their side is far less visible at colleges and universities. But they say they are counting on votes from some students and professors. Del. Neil C. Parrott (R-Washington) said he has heard from professors who oppose the law but are unwilling to speak out publicly for fear of damaging their careers — what he called a “chilling effect” on campuses.
State Sen. Victor R. Ramirez (D-Prince George’s), a chief sponsor of the legislation, predicted that voters will approve the law because it promotes equal opportunity.
“We want to treat all high school graduates the same, whether they’re from Allegany, Worcester, Prince George’s or Montgomery,” Ramirez said. “It’s a matter of fairness.”