Obama Moves Shake Up Maryland Dream Act Debate

By: - June 18, 2012 12:00 am

A major shift in U.S. immigration policy from the White House could have repercussions for a ballot measure in Maryland in November that would let undocumented students qualify for in-state tuition.

President Obama on Friday (June 15) announced his administration will all but end deportations of undocumented students already in this country. The administration is also letting students get jobs legally. The moves bypass Congress, which has wrestled with the issue for more than a decade without passing legislation.

Supporters and opponents of the Maryland measure say the publicity from Obama’s action will help their side.

Anthony Brown, Maryland’s Democratic lieutenant governor, says Obama’s announcement signaled a “cultural shift,” much as the president’s support for same-sex marriage increased the popularity of that idea, which is also on the Maryland ballot in November.

“That sends a very important message around the country and certainly here in Maryland,” Brown told Stateline, “that we need to be doing more to address the needs of protecting these young people.”

The question before Maryland voters will be whether to sign off on a law, called the Dream Act, that gives in-state tuition to students who are in the country illegally. The Democratic-dominated General Assembly passed the law last year, but opponents gathered enough signatures to block the law until voters weigh in on whether it should stand.

Delegate Pat McDonough, a Republican, is one of the most vocal advocates for repeal. He says more Marylanders will pay attention to the debate over the Maryland Dream Act, and they will not like what they hear. While gathering signatures for the referendum, McDonough says, he heard especially strong opposition to the idea from African Americans because of high unemployment in their communities. “Getting petitions signed in the black community was like shooting fish in a barrel,” he says.

McDonough says undocumented students would be “stealing slots in community colleges” that would otherwise go to legal residents. He argues that Obama’s changes will make the issue closer to the heart of more people, especially professionals, because the college-educated immigrants would be competing against them for higher-paying jobs. “It’s not like a landscaping job.”

Brown, who is black, says “misunderstanding” of the Dream Act, including the idea that it would force legal residents out of college spots, is the main obstacle to voter support. He says the publicity that comes with Obama’s announcement will help supporters explain exactly what the law would and would not do.

State Senator Roger Manno, a Democrat, says the publicity will also help voters understand who the undocumented students are.

“In the case of Maryland, they’re products of the greatest K-12 education system in the nation,” he says. “These are wonderful, smart kids. They’re paying their taxes. They’re registered for Selective Service. They’re patriots, many of them. The president’s decision helps articulate the need for this legislation.”

For 19-year-old community college student Jorge Steven Acuña, who lives in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C., Obama’s announcement and the prospect of a Maryland Dream Act are a head-turning reversal of fortune. Acuña met with a congressman and federal officials during a White House event in the suburbs Saturday, just three months after he was in jail awaiting deportation.

Acuña came to the country from Colombia 11 years ago with his family, which has asked for, but not received, political asylum. An outpouring of support from friends and elected officials convinced federal officials in March to give him and his family a one-year reprieve.

“I’m really looking forward to (the Dream Act passing), because now I can work and get an education and get in-state tuition if that passes,” he says. “So there’s no excuse for why I shouldn’t be successful, whereas before I could get deported and wouldn’t be able to pay in-state tuition. So things are just getting brighter and brighter.”

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.