When she was 10 years old, Veronica Sarazia and her 8-year-old brother bid goodbye to the grandmother who had cared for them for five years in their native El Salvador, and set off toward Guatemala on foot. They were headed to the United States in hopes of joining their parents.
Escorted by strangers and at times traveling alone, the children spent a month walking through Guatemala and Mexico, going up to four days at a time without food. They crossed the U.S. border at San Ysidro, Calif., the busiest land-crossing in the world. Veronica was detained by immigration authorities, and spent 17 days in a juvenile detention facility before being allowed to travel to Maryland, she told Youth Today. A year later, a Maryland court told Veronica she had to return to El Salvador. Her family managed to avoid her deportation by moving a lot, she said. She changed four schools in seven years.
Now 17 years old and a high school graduate, Veronica is among the estimated 435 children of undocumented immigrants who stand to benefit from in-state tuition rates in Maryland every year if a voter referendum passes on Nov. 6. Polls show that Question 4, which asks for voter approval of Maryland’s so-called DREAM Act, appears poised to pass with a healthy majority.
A Washington Post poll released Thursday found 59 percent of likely Maryland voters support the measure. A state-wide poll conducted in September by local firm Gonzales Research and Marketing Strategies found 58 percent of Marylanders supported the law, up from 48 percent from a similar poll conducted by the organization in January.
And another September poll, commissioned by the pro-DREAM Act coalition Educating Kids Maryland and conducted by Washington, D.C. firm Garin-Hart-Yang Research Group, found support by 60 percent of voters.
The law in question, SB 167, allows children of undocumented immigrants who meet certain criteria to receive in-state tuition rates at four-year state colleges and universities. Both houses of the Maryland Legislature approved it and Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley signed it in May 2011.
To qualify under SB 167, parents must have paid state income taxes for three of the years the children were in high school and every year since. The children must have attended a Maryland high school for at least three years and graduated from a school in the state. They must first complete 60 credits, or two years, at a community college before becoming eligible for in-state rates at a four-year state college or university.
The net economic benefits to the state would equal $66 million for every class of DREAM students over their lifetimes, according to a recent cost-benefit analysis by the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. The analysis assumed that students would land better-paying jobs after graduation, pay state income taxes and have lower incarceration rates. Opponents of the law, like Republican state Del. Pat McDonough, denounced that report.
Soon after Gov. O’Malley signed the law last year, opponents of the legislation, led by Republican state Del. Neil Parrott, gathered more than 100,000 signatures on a petition, triggering a state constitutional rule to put it on the 2012 ballot for voters to decide. That in turn set off a legal challenge by supporters to stop a voter referendum and allow the law to proceed.
Led by Casa De Maryland, an advocacy organization for Latinos and immigrants, supporters of the law took their case all the way to the state Court of Appeals, the highest court in the state. They argued SB 167 was an appropriations bill because it dealt with tuition rates and so could not be put to voters for approval. In June 2012, the state’s highest court upheld a lower court ruling that rejected that argument and allowed the voter referendum to continue.
But opponents’ efforts to defeat SB 167 through the referendum, despite the tens of thousands of signatures they gathered last year, have since fizzled.
“If we're going to do something, it needs to happen soon,” Del. Parrott, who led the opposition’s collection of signatures, told The Baltimore Sun earlier this month. He did not return a message left by Youth Today at his office.
“It’s a pretty anemic opposition in terms of organized efforts and fundraising,” said Kristin Ford, spokeswoman for Educating Kids Maryland, a statewide coalition advocating for the passage of Question 4, about anti-DREAM Act efforts.
Educating Kids Maryland, which includes the largest teachers’ union in the state and the Maryland Catholic Conference, has raised $1.5 million since it was formed in response to the anti-DREAM Act petition, Ford said.
“We’ve tried to educate people about it so they know what it is before they read the ballot language, and they understand that it’s a fair, common-sense measure,” Ford said. “It’s not a handout and it’s not a special benefit,” as the families have paid state taxes, she said.
There was a lot of voter misinformation about the law, said Meredith Curtis of the ACLU of Maryland, which has been helping with voter outreach as a member of Educating Kids Maryland.
For example, undocumented students are not “taking away” college seats available to other Maryland residents, as the law does not count undocumented students who get in-state tuition as part of in-state enrollment, Ford said. Nor does the law make undocumented students eligible for state or federal financial aid or scholarships.
Maryland is among 12 states that have similar laws offering in-state tuition to undocumented students, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The difference in tuition rates can be significant: for the 2011-2012 school year, Maryland’s tuition for in-state students was about $8,655, compared to $26,026 for out-of-state residents.
Come Nov. 6, if Maryland voters approve Question 4, Veronica Sarazia plans to enroll at Montgomery College, a community college near Maryland’s border with Washington, D.C., so she can start on her path to becoming a developmental psychologist.
“I want to help children who are going through what I did,” Veronica said.
Now a youth leader with Casa de Maryland, Veronica says she’s not afraid anymore." [Casa de Maryland] taught me that I’m not a criminal and that I shouldn’t be afraid and that I should stop running away.”
If the referendum doesn’t pass, she says she’ll just keep fighting.
“If more stories like mine come out, then we are going to be able to win something like comprehensive immigration reform,” Veronica said. “I feel our stories are powerful enough to get other people to join our fight.”