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Come November, Dream Act to take spotlight

ANNAPOLIS — While President Barack Obama and his Republican opponent will capture national headlines this November, Maryland voters will turn their attention to in-state policy disputes, like 2011’s In-State Tuition Bill, also known as the Dream Act.

By the end of April, groups like Educating Maryland Kids and Help Save Maryland will be canvassing neighborhoods, calling homes and distributing pamphlets in an attempt to sway voters on a referendum vote for the controversial bill. Presidential candidates will of course be on the ballot in November, but Maryland is typically ignored by national campaigns because it is such a safe state for Democrats.

If enacted, the Dream Act will allow illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition rates provided they attended high school in Maryland, file Maryland income taxes and be in the process of applying for citizenship or permanent residency. Currently, illegal immigrants have to pay out-of-state tuition rates, which are thousands of dollars more than in-state rates.

Brad Botwin, executive director of Help Save Maryland, a citizen group opposed to illegal immigration, said the organization intends to base its campaign around the financial burden it would put on Maryland, and said the Dream Act is “a nightmare for taxpayers.”

Botwin estimated that the financial difference between in-state and out-of-state tuition would cost upwards of $40,000 per student over four years. In addition, immigrants who graduate cannot legally be employed in Maryland.

There’s no official data regarding how many students the reduced rates will affect. Immigrant advocacy group CASA de Maryland estimates that around 150 students will be able to qualify, but Botwin places the number much higher.

Educating Maryland Kids, an advocacy group in support of the Dream Act, was recently founded to reach out to community voters and gather support.

Campaign coordinator Travis Tazellar said the group plans to gather support for the movement around the benefits of an educated workforce.

While planning is still in the initial stages, Tazellar said the group will focus its efforts on door-to-door canvassing, phone calls and garnering support from local education advocacy groups.

“We’re going to run an aggressive campaign,” he said.

Since only people who are in the process of applying for legal residency can qualify for in-state tuition, supporters aren’t worried about long-term effects on Maryland’s economy.

“The idea is that, while you’re waiting for citizenship, you can be preparing yourself to contribute to the future of Maryland,” said Sen. Victor Ramirez, D-Prince George’s, who coauthored the in-state tuition bill in 2011.

Both Educating Maryland Kids and Help Save Maryland are 501(c) organizations, and rely on donations to fund their campaigns. Under Maryland campaign finance law, citizen groups created for educational outreach purposes are allowed to operate as long as they don’t endorse a specific candidate.

Another controversial issue that could be decided in November’s election is same-sex marriage, which will likely go to referendum if approved by the General Assembly.

After last fall’s petition against the Dream Act gathered enough votes to put the bill to a referendum, the bill is caught up in a court battle. Both sides are debating whether a referendum is allowed under the Maryland Constitution, since the document “prohibits referendums on laws that maintain or aid public institutions.”

Ten states, including California and Texas, have passed laws on in-state tuition for illegal immigrants.

Del. Pat McDonough, R-Baltimore County, is opposed to the Dream Act, and served as the honorary chair of last fall’s petition drive that put the law to a referendum.

“The average person is opposed to the idea of illegal aliens receiving a discount during these harsh economic times,” he said.

But McDonough said he thinks that pro-Dream Act groups like La Raza and CASA de Maryland will have a better chance at securing financial resources for their advocacy campaign.

“We will be outspent,” McDonough said.

The bill would also allow military members who have been stationed in Maryland for more than three years to qualify for in-state tuition.