Dream Act supporters take to the streets to win votes -- Gazette.Net


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It already was getting hot the morning after last week’s devastating storm, but the two canvassers weren’t letting the temperature bother them.

Passing a clipboard between them, they worked their way through the farmer’s market in Cheverly, one person at a time, gauging support for the Maryland Dream Act. They offered more information as needed, encountering a mix of resistance, enthusiasm and uncertainty.

But as the campaign ramps up to persuade voters in November to uphold the act — which passed in 2011 and offers in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants — supporters say just describing the law’s provisions goes a long way.

“There are a lot of myths,” said Adam Abadir, an organizer with SEIU who campaigned in support of the act Saturday. “[But] the more I talk, the more people want to listen.”

Some were resistant, such as one woman at the farmer’s market who insisted undocumented immigrants already receive free health care without paying taxes.

Others were enthusiastic in their support, eager to expand access to education.

“It’s a step in the right direction,” said Will Zuccarini, an education major at Towson University. “I want to see kids do well.”

Another man was open to the idea, but not if it allowed those recently arrived in the country to immediately take advantage of lower rates. Abadir quickly pointed out that it did not, and then the man accepted a flier with more details about the law.

Abadir’s union is part of a coalition of pro-Dream Act organizations known as Educating Maryland Kids, and explaining the details of the bill is crucial to their strategy.

For example, eligible students must have attended a Maryland high school for three years, graduated and enrolled at a community college before transferring to a four-year state college or university, according to the law. During that time, the student or their parents must have filed state income tax returns each year and the student must sign an affidavit pledging to become a permanent resident within 30 days of becoming eligible, according to the law.

If admitted to a four-year program “they’ll pay in-state tuition, but they’ll be considered against out-of-state applicants,” said Kristin Ford, spokeswoman for the coalition. “This will not take seats away from other Maryland students.”

But opponents of the bill say the argument is flawed. The law may not take seats from other Marylanders, but it will from out-of-state students who pay higher tuition costs, said Brad Botwin, director of Help Save Maryland, which helped gather the signatures to put the law before voters.

The law does not contain a limit on how many undocumented students can take advantage of the provision. Supporters argue that based on similar laws in other states and the stringent requirements in Maryland, only a small number of hardworking students will be eligible.

The act also threatens to put concerns of illegal immigrants above those of the state’s lawful residents, Botwin said.

“We have families here that are losing houses and can’t send their kids to college,” he said, adding that illegal residents still could go to college — they would just have to pay the higher rate.

That the act grants an advantage to the undocumented is an affront to legal immigrants who have obeyed the law and are on the path to citizenship, said Robert Broadus, a Republican who made an unsuccessful bid for the seat held by U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin (D) earlier this year and worked with Help Save Maryland to gather signatures.

A poll conducted earlier this year by Gonzales Research & Marketing Strategies showed Marylanders divided on the measure, with 48 percent supporting it and 49 percent opposed.

But the issue has become more complex since President Barack Obama’s announcement last month that the government would defer the deportation of some young undocumented immigrants and give them a chance to earn work permits.

Obama’s announcement certainly put more focus on immigration issues and likely was to anger voters who didn’t want their taxes supporting illegals, said Del. Neil Parrott (R-Dist. 2B) of Hagerstown. Parrott also serves as chair of MDPetitions.com, which led the petition drive.

But although opponents are more likely to get the biggest boost from the president’s action, Obama supporters could rally around his position on this issue and vote to uphold the law, said Laura Hussey, professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

Federal Dream Act legislation also has been proposed, but that bill would establish a path to citizenship for students who entered the country illegally. Maryland’s bill focuses just on tuition rates, Hussey said.

Parrott, whose organization also has been occupied with petition drives to overturn same-sex marriage and repeal the state’s new congressional districts, says a formal strategy for convincing voters to overturn the Dream Act hasn’t been determined yet.

Supporters have partnered with advocates for other ballot measures. Immigrant-advocacy group Casa of Maryland has linked with the nonprofit Equality Maryland to drum up voter support for both the Dream Act and same-sex marriage.

But the two sides ultimately work against each other, particularly as Dream Act supporters reach out to Obama supporters, said Donald Norris, chair of the Department of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. The result of that outreach could be a higher turnout among black voters, who are more divided on same-sex marriage than on the Dream Act, Norris said.

Botwin argued that those two issues, plus a possible referendum on congressional districts, formed a provocative “trifecta” that would be overturned by angry voters.

Canvassing, email blasts and media advertising are likely, Botwin said.

But although Botwin says Obama’s announcement was good for Dream Act opponents, Broadus isn’t so sure.

“It definitely hinders [us],” he said, adding that Obama didn’t seem to care about the opinions of many of his constituents. “The hard part [will be] getting the community to realize that and reconsider their votes.”

dleaderman@gazette.net