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Lower tuition sought in Md. for illegal immigrants' kids

Thursday - 2/17/2011, 4:12am  ET

Andrew Mollenbeck, wtop.com

ANNAPOLIS, Md - A bill that would offer in-state tuition breaks to undocumented immigrants in Maryland is provoking emotional appeals on both sides of the issue.

"This legislation is about hope and about dreams," says Victor Ramirez, D-Prince George's, who introduced the bill.

"Even though you lived in Maryland, even though you went through our public school systems, you still have to think about $17,000. That's not a car payment. That's a car."

To make college more affordable for these students, his bill would allow those without legal status to enroll at in-state tuition rates.

Students would have to attend a Maryland high school for at least two years, graduate, apply for citizenship and prove that their parents or guardians have been paying income taxes to qualify.

"We're just trying to pay the same amount as any Maryland student who goes to college or university," said Jesus, a student who was present at the hearings. He was among dozens who wore matching shirts in support of the legislation.

"We don't want to pay more or less, we just want to pay the same as any other student," he said.

Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett and Prince George's County Executive Rushern Baker both testified at the hearing in support of the legislation. The University System of Maryland also gave its support to the bill.

The strongest criticisms against the bill involve fairness to legal citizens and students who may be less likely to gain acceptance into a college or university should the bill pass.

"If a student is here undocumented or illegal—whatever the terminology—they will get a lower rate than a U.S. citizen that has played by the rules in another state," says Bryan Simonaire, R-Anne Arundel.

Raymond Hawkins, who lives in Ramirez's district in Prince George's County, drove to the hearing to raise concerns that the bill could negatively affect black students hoping to attend historically black colleges and universities.

"You have people who are illegally in this country who are taking up slots for students who are Maryland students, who are U.S. citizens and who absolutely have a right at citizens to have this opportunity to go to college," Hawkins says.

Following their testimony in support of the in-state tuition breaks, both Leggett and Baker responded to that concern.

"We haven't found that it takes the place of an African-American child or a white child, quite honestly," Baker says.

Leggett did not deny it outright, but he also suggested there could be some positive results.

"I think that's an overstatement," Leggett says. "If we're talking about some students who may, in fact, not get into college because of competition, it is competition of a good sort, that is competition based on academic qualification."

He also noted the recent census data showed Montgomery County to be a "majority minority county," and those in the Latino community now make up its largest segment.

"Let's give these students the hope, the expectation that they can graduate from our schools, contribute to our society and ensure that we have the quality of life that they and all of us deserve," he says.

Students, religious leaders and other advocates packed the committee hearing to a point where people were standing in the aisles to listen to the testimony.

"I'm a senior in high school, and honestly I really don't know what I'm going to do after I finish with high school," says a student who gave his name as Jaime.

"I don't have the money to pay three or four times more" than in-state tuition rates.

Given that most of the students in attendance do not have legal status, they were advised not to give their full names.

"I do want to be somebody in life, someone successful," says Guadalupe, another Maryland high school student. "I am a senior and I am planning to go to college. I'm planning to be a psychologist."

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(Copyright 2011 by WTOP. All rights reserved.)