Dream Act Faces Battle in Maryland

Dream Act Faces Battle in Maryland

Participants gather for the Salvadorisimo festival in Gaithersburg, Md. David Frey photo.


For years, immigrant activists in Colorado have tried unsuccessfully to pass a statewide “Dream Act” to allow in-state tuition to students who arrived in this country illegally as children. A dozen states have passed similar laws. One of them is Maryland, where a referendum on the November ballot is asking voters if the law should stay in place. From Gaithersburg, Maryland, David Frey reports.

Listen here: Maryland Dream Act

[SOUND: Music from El Salvador cultural festival]

Montgomery County, Maryland is one of the most diverse places in the country. One out of every three residents in these DC suburbs was born in another country. Among them is 20-year old Francisco Cartagena who arrived with his parents from El Salvador when he was just ten years old.

[CARTAGENA: “I don’t see it as my home. I cold never go back. I have family there but it would feel completely alien to me.”]

In the past decade there has been a surge of immigrants to Montgomery County, including many from El Salvador, who recently celebrated a Salvadoran heritage festival here.  But they’ve also come from places like India, China, Ethiopia and West Africa. The county’s diversity makes it one of the parts of the state that could be most affected by the outcome of a vote next month on Maryland’s Dream Act. The law, which was passed last year, would allow young people like Cartagena to pay in-state tuition rates at state universities – about a third the cost of out-of-state tuition.

Now in community college, Cartagena wants to transfer next year to the University of Maryland.

[CARTAGENA: “Not only is it really expensive already in-state, but for me it will be three times as expensive, so instead of paying 8,000 bucks a semester, I’ll be paying 26 – that’s impossible for me to do.”]

When he came to the US with his parents they told him they were coming on vacation to Disney World.  Instead, the family stayed.  His mother provides childcare. His father got a job with a carpet company. For a time the family got by with their earnings until his father lost his job in the recession.  Then he lost his vision in an accident.

The younger Cartagena and his brother were left to find a way to put themselves through college while trying to earn money for the family at the same time.

Recently he applied for deferred deportation under the new Obama administration policy. If accepted it would be a half step toward his goal of graduating from college.

[CARTAGENA: “I just hope the wings kind of expand from this point on and I can find better opportunities to better myself as well as my family. … This is a huge incentive for us to finish school and keep at it.”]

Opponents of the Dream Act include Brad Botwin who runs Help Save Maryland. The group petitioned to put the legislation up to a vote.  He is now campaigning to overturn the Dream Act.

[BOTWIN: “I’m not opposed to people going to school. I just think they should pay their own way. It’s not like we’re rounding everyone up and deporting them. We’re just saying enough is enough here.”]

Botwin says Maryland taxpayers shouldn’t subsidize college for students who came to this country illegally, especially if it could mean they take classroom seats that citizens could occupy.

[BOTWIN: These people are not going to be able to work. They can’t work. They can’t drive. They can’t vote. They’re taking up slots in schools. Frankly to bump a student from New Jersey who is a citizen for somebody who rightly should be deported, his entire family should be sent back, is criminal to me. The big loser is American citizens across the country. We should not be aiding and abetting people.”]

Maryland is one of twelve states that offer some sort of Dream Act, including Utah, New Mexico and Texas. That list does NOT include Colorado, where supporters’ efforts as recently as last year failed to get a bill to the floor of the legislature.   Criticism of the act in Colorado are similar to those here – opponents says it rewards illegal immigration at a time when the economy is tough on native-born citizens.

Supporters of the act include education officials like University of Maryland President Wallace D. Loh, an immigrant himself.  Recently Loh, writing in the Washington Post said; “These young people were brought here and grew up here. They are now trapped in a dilemma they did not create.”

For students like Francisco Cartagena, the Dream Act offers a huge opportunity.   His brother dreams of being a heart surgeon while Cartagena envisions a different path for himself.

[CARTAGENA: “I’m really looking forward to law school and maybe some day immigration law on a federal level. I feel we have a long way to go until we have immigration reform in this country and I feel like I can help get there.”]

One way or the other, Cartagena says he’ll find a way to get through college, even if voters DEFEAT the Dream Act.  Still, to many other so-called “Dreamers,” he says, Maryland’s Dream Act could make the difference between going to college or not.

For Aspen Public Radio News in Gaithersburg, Maryland, I’m David Frey.