STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
We've heard some discussion of immigration in this year's presidential campaign. We have not seen much immigration legislation move on Capitol Hill. But one state is holding a referendum on a local version of an immigration bill that's been debated in Washington. The so-called Maryland Dream Act would offer in-state tuition rates to undocumented college students residing in Maryland. But as Jacob Fenston reports, even in that solidly blue state the legislation is causing a stir.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) We are the dreamers.
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) We are the dreamers.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) Mighty, mighty dreamers.
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) Mighty, mighty dreamers.
JACOB FENSTON, BYLINE: Over the past few months, supporters of the Maryland Dream Act have held marches and rallies around the state, telling voters about the bill.
YVES GOMES: It stands for, of course, fairness. That if you have roots in Maryland, why not, you should be able to pay in-state tuition.
FENSTON: Undocumented Dreamers like Yves Gomes are the face of the campaign. This is a battle they already won once. In the final hours of last year's legislative session, the Democratic-dominated General Assembly passed the Maryland Dream Act.
STATE DELEGATE NEIL PARROTT: As it was getting pushed through, I said, Oh, no. And so I sent a Facebook message out to my friends and said, if this passes, do you think we should do a referendum to allow the voters to vote on this?
FENSTON: Republican state delegate Neil Parrott and his colleague Pat McDonough launched a campaign gathering more than 100,000, double the number needed to force a voter referendum.
STATE DELEGATE PAT MCDONOUGH: First of all, I don't believe, philosophically, that we should providing any kind of taxpayer-financed benefits to someone who is here without lawful presence.
FENSTON: The Dream Act would give undocumented students tuition breaks worth thousands of dollars, as long as they meet certain criteria, like going to high school in Maryland and filing taxes here.
PARROTT: All this bill would do is make Maryland more of a magnet for illegal aliens.
FENSTON: Parrot and McDonough worry undocumented students would crowd out legal residents, and they say the discounted tuition would cost the state way too much - as much as $40,000 per student for a college degree, multiplied by hundreds or thousands. But those numbers are up for debate.
GOVERNOR MARTIN O'MALLEY: The cost would be pretty negligible.
FENSTON: Dream Act supporters, like Democratic Governor Martin O'Malley, cite a new study that found economic benefits would outweigh the costs. By educating more future workers, the law would ultimately generate $24 million more in tax revenue each year and boost the state economy by $41 million.
O'MALLEY: The higher a state's level of education, the more economic opportunities flow from the talents and skills of a well-educated workforce.
RICKY CAMPOS: I'm studying, actually, premed. And hopefully, once I'm done with my bachelor's, I will be able to go to med school.
FENSTON: Ricky Campos moved to Maryland from El Salvador when he was 12 years old. Now, he's spent almost two and a half years at a community college. He has straight As, and all the credits to transfer to the University of Maryland, but he says out-of-state tuition is out of the question. At around $25,000 a year, it's about three times what Maryland residents pay.
CAMPOS: That's why I haven't transferred, by the way.
FENSTON: The latest polls seem to be tipping in favor of the Dream Act. But whatever the effect of the law, if affirmed, it won't address the most important questions of immigration policy, says Steve Camarota with the Center for Immigration Studies.
STEVEN CAMAROTA: Who may come, how many, and how do we enforce our laws, are all the really profound questions. And a debate over in-state college tuition is really a side-show.
FENSTON: If voters here do approve the bill, Maryland will become the 12th state to pass a version of the national Dream Act that's been stalled in Congress for the past decade. But these state laws can't, of course, provide a path to citizenship, a key component of the federal bill.
For NPR News, I'm Jacob Fenston.
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INSKEEP: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.