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Intense debate begins on immigrant tuition

ANNAPOLIS — As many states crack down on illegal immigration, the Maryland Senate began an intense debate Wednesday over whether illegal immigrants should be able to pay in-state tuition rates at state colleges.

The Senate agreed Wednesday to tighten the measure to require affected students to attend community college in the jurisdiction where they went to high school before qualifying for in-state tuition rates at a four-year college or university. The change was made to address concerns that the bill would lead to an influx of students without legal residency seeking to enter schools that are already competitive among students who are currently state residents.

Sen. Paul Pinsky, D-Prince George’s, said the amendment was needed to address confusion about whether students could receive in-county tuition rates at community colleges anywhere in the state, no matter where they live.

“It simply says that if you meet all the other requirements — you’ve paid taxes, you graduated high school, you attended high school in the state for two years — at that point, you can attend a community college supported by the county in which the secondary school from which you graduate is located,” Pinsky said.

But Sen. E.J. Pipkin, R-Cecil, contended the change was made to address a court case pending against Montgomery College for its long-standing policy of providing county tuition rates to all recent county public school graduates, regardless of immigration status.

“If you’re trying to pre-empt the court case, fine,” Pipkin, who opposed the bill, said. “Say so.”

Pinsky said the amendment was proposed simply to clarify the legislation.

“We are not here to do the business of one jurisdiction,” Pinsky said. “We think the policy that makes clear going from high school to community college to a four-year college — that is as tight as we can make and have allowances — makes sense.”

Republicans moved to delay further debate until later Wednesday, so they could check whether the change has an effect on amendments they plan to propose.

The Senate was to take the bill up again Wednesday evening. A similar bill is pending in a House committee. Gov. Martin O’Malley has said he would sign a bill authorizing in-state tuition for illegal residents.

Since 2001, 10 states have enacted laws to allow undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition rates at public colleges and universities. They are California, Illinois, Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah, and Washington.

Maryland is considering the change at a time when other states are cracking down on illegal immigration.

“This is the only immigrant-rights bill that would be passed this year out of any states,” said Alisa Glassman, a lead organizer for Action in Montgomery, which is working to build support for the measure.

The debate Wednesday morning got off to a heated start when Sen. James Brochin, D-Baltimore County, questioned why the bill, which has an estimated cost of about $800,000 in fiscal 2014, wasn’t referred to a Senate committee that usually reviews legislation with significant costs.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, D-Calvert, said he hadn’t realized the bill had a fiscal note when it was assigned to the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, instead of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee.

Sen. David Brinkley, R-Frederick, noted that the estimated cost of the bill grew to $1.6 million in fiscal 2015 and $3.5 million in fiscal 2016.

“This isn’t about education in the state,” Brinkley said. “These individuals have the opportunity for education in the state. The issue is who pays for it. The issue is: do the taxpayers subsidize it?”

Pinsky, who noted the law requires states to educate children of illegal immigrants from kindergarten through 12th grade, said the federal government has failed to adequately address illegal immigration policy. Whenever it does, he said, he doubted the policy would remove millions of people who are in the country illegally now.

“So the question, I think, falls to us,” Pinsky said. “Should we have been in a better position, having more degrees, more education, when they do in fact become legal sometime in the future? Or should we just restrain them to the lowest-paying jobs, to not being able to afford higher education?”