The fate of in-state tuition for illegal immigrants in Maryland appears to be headed to voters next year after a campaign to put the issue on the 2012 ballot amassed more than twice the required signatures in only two months.
The campaign has blocked the onset of Maryland’s Dream Act—which was set to take effect July 1—pending verification of the signatures by the Maryland State Board of Elections.
Elections officials have until July 20 to count and verify the signatures, and until July 22 to certify the results. With 47,288 signatures in May already verified, the referendum drive needs only 8,448 out of the 75,000 turned in on Thursday to send the question to voters next November.
But the issue could take a detour into state courthouses before reaching voters. Dream Act opponents have already challenged Montgomery College’s admission policies, and immigrant advocates are contesting the means by which the petition’s signatures were collected.
The Dream Act and the efforts to take it down have thrust the tuition issue to the forefront of Maryland’s heated debate over illegal immigration.
Senate Bill 167 would allow illegal immigrant students to pay in-state tuition if their parents filed to pay state taxes and if they graduated from a Maryland high school after attending for at least three years. The bill passed the House of Delegates by a 74-65 vote and the Senate by a 27-20 vote.
Opponents launched the referendum drive as soon as Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) signed the bill in May.
The petition drive spanned the state, culminating in a push ahead of its June 30 deadline, amassing 130,000 signatures—far more than the 55,736 needed.
Advocates on both side of the Dream Act rallied on Thursday to mark the deadline’s arrival: supporters in Baltimore in the morning and opponents that evening in Annapolis.
A dozen boxes brimming with petition signatures were stacked in front of the Maryland Secretary of State’s office as Del. Neil C. Parrott—one of three delegates spearheading the drive—turned in a haul of signatures.
The petition had amassed 57,505 signatures by the end of May—of which, 47,288 were verified and 10,217 rejected. For June, the haul topped 75,000.
"There’s been a huge surge of signatures in the past few days, specifically today," said Parrott (R-Dist. 2B) of Washington County. "… The people of Maryland have spoken, and they’re going to win on this petition drive, and they’re going to win on this referendum in November of 2012."
Earlier that day in Baltimore, faith leaders and immigration advocates gathered at Cathedral of the Incarnation to support the Dream Act.
"We hope and pray that the people of Maryland will consider the merits of this law with honest minds and open hearts, and will choose to support it as well," said Bishop Mitchell T. Rozanski of the Archdiocese of Baltimore. "The most compelling test of our actions will be the judgment of those who come after us. Today, we want to be sure that these young men and women can look back years from now, and know we stood by them."
Meanwhile, the state Board of Elections will be handing over the list of everyone who signed the petition.
Casa of Maryland, the state’s largest immigrant advocacy group, requested the information via the Maryland Public Information Act.
Three state delegates leading the petition drive—Parrott, Michael D. Smigiel (R-Dist. 36) of the Eastern Shore and Patrick McDonough (R-Dist. 7) of Baltimore County—also asked for the information.
The requests ask for the state Board of Elections to turn over a list of everyone who signed the petition, including an explanation of why the board accepted or rejected each signature, said Linda Lamone, the elections board’s administrator.
Casa of Maryland wants the information in order to make an "independent determination about whether the board violated the law in validating the signatures," said Kim Propeack, the nonprofit’s lead political organizer.
The requests cover signatures from May. Casa will make the same request for June signatures, Propeack said.
The ACLU of Maryland last month challenged the use of a website to gather signatures. At the time, MDpetitions.com had accounted for roughly one-third of the 57,505 submitted signatures.
"There could have been errors in a lot of different aspects of the documents," Propeack said.
Whatever that outcome, the issue could change course in a state courtroom before reaching the ballot box voting booth.
The tuition issue has already landed in Montgomery County Circuit Court. Last year, three Montgomery County residents—with the backing of Judicial Watch—sued the Board of Trustees for Montgomery College for what they claim is a “de facto” policy of allowing illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition.
That case has been pushed back until at least the end of this year.
Activists expect the referendum drive to follow suit.
“We’ve said from the beginning that this issue is going to be decided by the courts,” Propeack said. “If they hadn’t validated the signatures, [anti-Dream Act activists] would sue. And if they do validate the signatures, supporters will.”
Any such appeal would go to Anne Arundel Circuit Court, Lamone said.
The original version of this story incorrectly identified the group helping represent the plaintiffs in a lawsuit against Montgomery College. Judicial Watch is the group.