On November 6, 2012, a Maryland law that grants an in-state tuition discount to undocumented college students won voter approval in a referendum that set a precedent in the national debate over illegal immigration.

By Wednesday morning, Question 4 had built an insurmountable lead in unofficial returns, with 93% of precincts reporting.

“This is going to be a tremendous victory,” Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, a Democrat, said in Baltimore as results were coming in, capping support for the measure that included spirited rallies and marches.

Delegate Neil C. Parrott (Republican from Washington County of Maryland), a leading opponent of the law, acknowledged that his side was trailing significantly. No matter what the outcome, he said, it was a victory for voters to be able to consider the question.

Pre-election polling showed broad support for the law, known as Maryland’s version of the “Dream Act,” which grants in-state public tuition rates to certain undocumented immigrants who attended Maryland high schools for at least three years and meet other conditions.

The law won approval last year from the Democrat-controlled General Assembly and O’Malley. But the issue landed on the ballot after critics collected enough petition signatures to force a referendum on whether to uphold the statute or strike it down.

About a dozen other states have laws or policies that echo Maryland’s version. But the outcome of Question 4 set a precedent. No other state has approved such a law through a popular vote.

Under the law, students who qualify for the tuition benefit must first attend community college. Those who receive an associate degree or at least 60 credits at the two-year school can then qualify for a tuition discount at a four-year university.

For students from families of modest means, the subsidy is crucial to hopes of getting a bachelor’s degree. At the University of Maryland (U-Md.) in College Park, in-state tuition is $7,175 a year. For out-of-state students, it is $25,554.

Critics called the law an unjustified giveaway of taxpayer funding. They also said it would leave fewer slots available at U-Md. and other selective public schools for U.S. citizens. Proponents called that argument unfounded.

U-Md. President Wallace D. Loh, a supporter of the law, said the number of undocumented students who would qualify for the benefit at College Park would be minimal, perhaps 20 a year.

“Yes, they are undocumented,” Loh said. “But we’re talking about people who came here as children.” He called the issue a matter of “fairness and justice” and said that Maryland has a vested interest in providing higher education access, at a low price, to all its high school graduates.

Maryland’s law stands out among similar statutes across the country. Experts say no other state that provides an in-state discount for undocumented immigrants requires the students to attend community college first. Some analysts estimated that the tuition subsidy could cost taxpayers $3.5 million a year. But there is little consensus on the cost because it is unknown how many students would qualify for the benefit.

Debate over tuition benefits for illegal immigrants arose in the Republican presidential primary. Texas Governor Rick Perry, a supporter of such benefits, drew criticism for his stance from former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, the eventual Republican nominee. The campaign on Question 4 in Maryland was largely overshadowed by debate on ballot measures related to same-sex marriage and gambling.

The original newspaper article is available online.

Attorneys at I.S. Law Firm have helped many immigrants in Maryland and throughout the United States to legalize or adjust their status in the United States. Please contact us for a consultation today: +1-703-527-1779 or via e-mail: [email protected].