With barely two hours left in the 2011 legislative session, the House of Delegates gave final approval to a bill providing in-state tuition to Maryland's undocumented students.
Students cheered from the gallery and hugged and prayed in the lobby after the bill passed Monday night. Helen Melton, an advocacy specialist at CASA de Maryland, an immigrants' rights group, said she and a group of students were asked to leave because their "jubilation" got a little too loud.
"The kids were shouting and jumping with excitement in the lobby," Melton said. "The governor was standing at the top of the stairs (looking down to the lobby) and yelled to the kids that he couldn't wait to sign the bill into law. The kids went crazy."
The vote came after a day of wrangling that nearly killed the bill.
The bill initially passed the Senate in March, but sat on the House of Delegates legislative calendar until last week. On Friday, the House passed the bill 74-65, but added three amendments that needed Senate approval.
Key senators who initially supported the bill balked at the new amendments, especially one added by Delegate Luiz Simmons, D-Montgomery, that waived a tax-paying requirement if the family could prove by clear and convincing evidence that they were unable to work during their child's high school years. Senators thought the amendment, even with its high standard of proof, would become a loophole for people to get in-state tuition without paying taxes.
Facing a potentially lethal impasse when Sen. David Brinkley, R-Frederick, began to filibuster, the House and Senate formed a conference committee, which ultimately rejected Simmons' amendment.
Jonathan Green, an 18-year-old student at Montgomery College, who advocated for both this bill and similar failed federal legislation, said that when the bill went to a conference committee, he and his fellow students' hearts sank.
"I was sitting in the Senate during the filibuster, having a flashback to being in the U.S. Senate gallery to see our federal government fail. Seeing all the students crying broke my heart. I was thinking, 'not another December 2010.' We just didn't want to lose the fight," Green said.
When the bill emerged from committee, it went back to the Senate and House for final approval, and passed 27-19 and 74-65 respectively.
Under the new law, undocumented students are eligible to pay in-state tuition at community colleges and state universities, provided they graduated from a Maryland high school and attended that school for at least three years. They are also required to attend a community college first.
Students receiving the in-state rates also must prove that they or their parents had Maryland income taxes deducted from their paychecks for the three years before high school graduation, and continue to file taxes until college graduation.
Anne Arundel Community College President Martha Smith is pleased at the bill's passage and doesn't believe the college will see an overwhelming influx of new students like some opponents predicted.
"We'll have more students enroll, and I think we'll make money with this bill," Smith said. "I don't see that there will be hundreds of students coming...It certainly won't impact us in terms of added costs. We've already been adding capacity with people coming back to school over the last three years to learn new skills."