from the Baltimore Sun
Opponents of the new law to extend in-state tuition breaks to illegal immigrants say they are confident they have cleared their first hurdle in stopping the measure by collecting many more than the 18,500 valid signatures they needed by Tuesday to keep their repeal effort alive.
“We have over 40,000,” said Del. Neil C. Parrott, the Washington County Republican who is leading the petition drive to get the controversial law onto the 2012 ballot.
The opponents will need to submit about 56,000 valid signatures to the State Board of Elections by the end of June to suspend the legislation and give the voters the final say. They plan to collect many more, on the assumption that some will get thrown out.
They were required to gather a third of the total by Tuesday. Elections officials now will vet the first batch of signatures.
Organizers of mdpetitions.com credited their success so far to public opposition to the measure and an easy-to-use website. They said the volume of telephone calls from people asking for a petition to sign or circulate continues to grow.
“The reason this is resonating with voters is because they know this is a bad bill,” Parrott said.
Advocates for immigrants said they will step up efforts to counteract that message while they wait to see how many of the signatures filed Tuesday are accepted as valid. Statewide petition drives must meet minimums within each jurisdiction and statewide.
“The number is very impressive,” said Kim Propeack of the immigrant advocacy group CASA de Maryland. “It underscores that we need to do a better job during the month of June explaining about the benefits” of the law.
Propeack, CASA’s director of community organizing and political action, spoke of “replicating some of” the opponents’ methodology.
“We will be putting up a web site,” she said. “I also think that we will be engaging people at the places where they are signing people up.”
Propeack said opponents of the legislation are not describing it fairly. She said they tell people that illegal immigrants who earn degrees wouldn’t be able to work legally; the law requires that participants work to legalize their status.
She said opponents omit mention of the benefits to military families. The side also disagree on the cost to taxpayers.
“This is an education issue,” she said. “It is the best solution for the imperfect situation.”
The Democratic General Assembly approved the measure at the close of the 2011 legislative session in April, and Gov. Martin O’Malley signed it in May. A spokeswoman for O’Malley reiterated his support on Tuesday.
The governor supports people who are “willing to work hard for a better future in Maryland,” spokeswoman Takirra Winfield said.
Sen. Victor Ramirez, the Prince George’s County Democrat who sponsored the legislation in the Senate, echoed Propeack’s concern that opponents are not describing it accurately.
“Why are you taking it out on these kids?” he said. “At the end of the day it is very hard for them to fight back because they are in this situation.”
But Del. Patrick L. McDonough, a vocal critic of illegal immigration, said supporters of the legislation had “miscalculated.”
“For some reason believed they were on the side of the angels,” the Baltimore County Republican said.
While most of the early signers of the petition online were Republicans, he said, now about half are Democrats. He said organizers had gathered a significant number from African-Americans in Baltimore.
“The black community is exploding on this issue,” he said. He said there is a fear that youths will lose out on opportunities as a result of the bill.
To qualify for the break, an illegal immigrant would have to attend high school in Maryland for three years and show that his or her family had paid taxes to the state.
The student then could attend a community college at the in-state rate. After completing 60 credits, he or she could transfer to a four-year college, again at the residential discount.
The legislation would save eligible students from $4,000 to $6,000 per year at community college, according to a legislative analysis. At a four-year institution, the savings would increase: In-state tuition at the University of Maryland, College Park this year is $8,655; nonresidents pay $25,795.
Legislative analysts estimate the measure would cost the state about $800,000 in the first year, rising to $3.5 million annually by 2016. Opponents say the cost could be far higher.
Once opponents finish collecting signatures, McDonough said, they will turn their attention to filing a lawsuit to stop the law.
Opponents acknowledged the difficulty of getting the measure on the November 2012 ballot. Rules for petition drives are strict: To be counted, each signature must match or nearly match the exact name as it appears on the signer's voter registration card. The rejection rate is so high that the elections board advises petitioners to submit at least 30 percent more signatures than the required number.
Consequently, successful statewide petition efforts are relatively rare. A drive to repeal legislation enabling speed cameras two years ago fell short of the required signatures. Opponents of early voting gathered enough signatures in 2006 to get the question on the ballot, but the courts overturned the legislation, rendering the referendum moot.
A recent decision by the state’s highest court has been interpreted as easing the requirements for valid signatures. Under the interpretation, if the components of the voter’s full name as given on the registration card can be pieced together from the voter’s signature and printed name, it counts.