by Sophie Petit, CNS
When Raymond Jose was a high school senior, he came home after a track meet one day and excitedly told his parents that scouts from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and Penn State University had offered him track scholarships.
His mother began to cry.
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you sooner,” she said in Tagalog, the national language of the Philippines, where Jose, his parents and older sister emigrated from in 2000.
She told Jose they’d been living in the U.S. illegally. He couldn’t accept any scholarships. Jose watched his father cry for the first time.
Like hundreds of undocumented high school graduates, Jose is waiting to see whether voters will uphold the Maryland Dream Act, which would allow some illegal immigrants to qualify for in-state tuition at public two- and four-year colleges.
The law passed last year, but opponents successfully petitioned to place it on the November ballot as Question 4.
Under the law, illegal immigrants must attend a Maryland high school for three years, prove their parents or themselves paid income taxes for three years and sign an affidavit stating they’ll apply for citizenship.
They must then earn 60 credits at a local community college before transferring to a four-year school.
Jose wants to go to college and become a doctor, but without financial aid, tuition is too expensive.
For a year, Jose was depressed and considered giving up and going back to the Philippines where he could finish his education and move to Canada, legally, he said.
But he’s lived here since he was 9.
“This is all I know now,” he said. In the Philippines, “I’d feel like an outsider.”
Jose has spent about 25 hours a week canvassing for the law since it was petitioned.
This Thursday, he’ll speak at an event in New York City for Grantmakers Concerned with Immigrants and Refugees, an organization that helps direct grants towards immigrant-related issues.
With more stipulations than any of the other 11 states with similar laws, Maryland has the toughest Dream Act in the country, said Kristin Ford, communications director for Educating Maryland Kids, a coalition working to defend the law.
For instance, undocumented students don’t have Social Security numbers but must prove they’ve paid income taxes.
You can pay income taxes without a Social Security number, Ford said. The state comptroller and the Internal Revenue Service give undocumented immigrants Individual Taxpayer Identification Numbers instead, and if needed, they can pay back taxes.
The IRS doesn’t communicate with immigration services so illegal immigrants can pay taxes without fear of deportation, Ford said.
Jose, now 22, graduated from Richard Montgomery High School and is enrolled at Montgomery College.
Without a driver’s license, it’s hard to get around, so he applied to the college because it’s close to where he lives, without knowing it offered undocumented students in-state tuition.
Last year, a group of county residents sued the college claiming its tuition policy was illegal. A county judge dismissed the case, upholding the rights of individual schools and the Maryland Higher Education Commission to set tuition rates.
Community colleges set their own rules about illegal immigrant admission and tuition.
Anne Arundel Community College, for example, will accept illegal immigrants who are upfront about their statuses, but they must pay out-of-state tuition, said Laurie Farrell, the college’s assistant public relations director.
Jose will spend four years earning his Dream Act-required 60 community college credits since he can only afford a few classes each semester, even with in-state tuition. This semester, he’s only taking one science class, costing about $500.
Since he’s undocumented, Jose can’t work, although he has in the past for minimum or less than minimum wages under the table, he said.
His parents and 24-year-old sister, who is also undocumented and sacrificed her own education to find jobs to pay for his schooling, help cover his tuition.
He’s still waiting for a work permit, which he applied for through deferred action, a program President Barack Obama announced this summer.
The program defers deportation and grants two-year renewable work permits to undocumented high school graduates who came to the U.S. before they turned 16 and are under 30 years old.
Students who meet the Dream Act requirements usually meet the requirements for deferred action as well, Ford said.
Jose’s decision to stay in the U.S. was mainly based on qualifying for deferred action, he said, since even with a college degree, he would need a permit to legally work.
When he gets the permit, he’ll get a job and start paying his way through school, he said.
Jose still plans on applying to UMBC and Johns Hopkins University to become a doctor.
“Here, I see myself making a difference,” he said. With the overflow of nurses and doctors in the Philippines, “I couldn’t do the same work.”
Nearly 300,000 illegal immigrants, including their U.S.-born children, live in Maryland, about five percent of the total population, and cost Marylanders about $1.7 billion a year, according to a 2010 study by the Federation for American Immigration Reform. More than half of this cost goes to K-12 education – about $920 million a year.
“These students are bright and hardworking,” said Sen. Bill Ferguson, D-Baltimore, at a press conference last month in support of the Dream Act. “We have raised them and educated them in our schools. We want them to get good jobs in Maryland.”
A report released this month said the total fiscal benefits of the Dream Act outweigh the costs to government.
The act would annually cost Maryland and its counties $7.2 million, and the federal government $200,000, totaling $7.4 million a year.
But benefits from the law would total $24.6 million, said the report, released by UMBC’s Maryland Institute for Policy Analysis and Research. The federal government would be the main beneficiary, with local governments losing about $1 million a year.
Critics of the act say it rewards those who break U.S. laws and increases competition for jobs and education among U.S. citizens.
The act encourages illegal immigration and is “fundamentally unfair to those who have played by the rules,” said Kristen Williamson, a FAIR spokesperson.
“If you continue to wipe the slate clean for a certain population of illegal aliens, it only attracts more people to enter illegally,” Williamson said, referring to the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 that was signed into law by former President Ronald Reagan and granted amnesty to illegal immigrants who had lived in the U.S. since before 1982.
The message is, “if they keep their heads down, they’ll get the benefits,” Williamson said.
But to Jose, Maryland is home.
“I grew up here in the U.S. thinking I was just like every other kid,” he said.
He constantly thinks about his illegal status.
“I think about what I can do with my future if they give me a chance,” he said. “Every day, it’s just a constant reminder that I have to get through this obstacle.”