Protesters urge Maryland voters to support Dream Act

Come Nov. 6, Maryland voters won’t only decide whether to overturn the state’s newly passed law allowing same-sex marriage. Also at stake: a controversial measure narrowly approved in Annapolis last year that lets students who entered the United States illegally pay in-state tuition at Maryland colleges.

Supporters of that legislation gathered last week for a boisterous protest in front of Baltimore’s G.H. Fallon Federal Building — where immigration hearings are held —to urge potential voters not to revoke that law.

About 100 demonstrators dressed in blue T-shirts shouted slogans, held up hand-painted signs and heard emotional speeches by foreign-born students, many of whom arrived in this country as children along with their job-seeking moms and dads.

Foreign-born women hold up signs during a recent rally in favor of the Maryland DREAM Act in front of the Federal Building in Baltimore. (Larry Luxner)

“I’m Ricky Campos, I’m undocumented and I’m unfraid!” shouted a young man from El Salvador, dressed in cap and gown. He then led the mostly Spanish-speaking crowd in chants of “Ni un dia más!” [Not one more day] as the Thursday afternoon sun drenched protesters in sweat.

The rally — co-sponsored by CASA de Maryland and the Hyattsville-based coalition Educating Maryland Kids — follows last month’s decision by the state’s Court of Appeals to clear the way for Maryland’s first referendum on a state law in 20 years.

Under the Maryland Dream Act, undocumented immigrants like Uribe and García may attend community colleges at in-state rates. The catch: they must prove they’ve attended Maryland high schools for at least three years, and that their parents or guardians have filed tax returns.

Those who continue their studies and earn an associate’s degree could then switch to a four-year institution, also at in-state rates. The difference is substantial, according to a recent Washington Post article: at the University of Maryland, annual tuition and fees for in-state students is $8,655, compared with $26,026 for out-of-state students.

In June, President Obama announced his administration would give young illegal immigrants in the military or in school a two-year deferral from deportation as well as the right to apply for work permit. Critics on the right, including Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), warn this is “an open invitation to fraud” — but the students at the center of the controversy say Obama’s relaxed new policy doesn’t go far enough.

Foreign-born youths at a recent rally in front of the Federal Building in Baltimore wear T-shirts urging voters to support the Maryland DREAM Act on the Nov. 6 ballot. (Larry Luxner)

Nathaly Uribe, a 17-year-old at Glen Burnie High School, was only 1 1/2 years old when her parents brought her here from Valparaiso, Chile.

“That was the best decision my parents could have made for me and my future,” said Uribe, speaking without a hint of an accent. “From the ages of 3 to 5, I could never physically see our touch my own father because he was forced to live months away at a time. I slept in the plastic tubes of a playground. I have so many memories of experiences that no child should ever have to go through.”

Uribe, co-president of her school’s MESA (Mathematics Engineering Science Achievement) chapter, already volunteers as an interpreter at a local hospital. She dreams of becoming a genetics researcher to combat disease.

“My experiences have made me who I am today: independent, confident and strong. I have nothing to be ashamed of,” the girl said to loud applause, as bottles of cold water were passed around, and onlookers — including a few bearded Hasidic Jews and a drunk man yelling incoherently — gazed to see what all the fuss was about.

Brenda, 16, then took the microphone, telling her audience “Soy indocumentada y sin miedo” [I’m undocumented and unafraid].

Yet, like several other speakers, Brenda was sufficiently afraid not to reveal her last name.

“My parents brought me here 11 years ago from El Salvador,” said the young woman, who attends Baltimore’s Digital Harbor High School. “I want to be a lawyer or a math teacher. I am a dreamer like all of you, and we deserve an opportunity to contribute to our country and to our state, Maryland. It’s not fair. We are the future of this country, and we demand the same opportunities as other Americans. I will not give up the struggle.”

(Dulce, a Mexican-born young woman living in Montgomery County, holds up a sign saying she’s “undocumented” and “unafraid”. She was one of 100 or so foreign-born youths at a recent rally to support the Maryland DREAM Act. (Larry Luxner)

Brenda’s friend Diana García, was born in the Mexican port of Veracrúz and brought to the United States at the age of 9. She attends Anne Arundel Community College.

“I have lived in Maryland for 11 years. This is the only home I know,” she said. “I can’t imagine being somewhere else. I’m unafraid and why should I be? I’m as much an American as anyone else. We don’t mean any harm. We just want to make America a better place. I strongly urge all undocumented Americans to come out of the shadows.”

If the state-level Dream Act is upheld on Nov. 6, Maryland would become the 13th state to allow such a provision, says the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Supporters include Freeman A. Hrabrowski, president of the University of Maryland Baltimore County. He calls Maryland’s provision “the best of the American Way.” Opponents, meanwhile, have rallied around Delegate Neil Parrott, a Washington County Republican who gathered 122,000 signatures last summer — way beyond what was necessary — to put the law to the test on Nov. 6.

Foreign-born youths want to voters to pass the Maryland DREAM Act on the Nov. 6 ballot. (Larry Luxner)

Kristin Ford, communications director of Educating Maryland Kids, said her coalition is fighting to protect the Maryland Dream Act from attacks by opponents.

“This is a common-sense piece of legislation, and we’re very optimistic about this,” she said. “Once we explain it to voters, we find they’re very receptive. They understand this is the fair thing to do, and the right thing to do.”

“Opponents tend not to understand it very well. They say we can’t support the Maryland Dream Act because it would take spots in college classes away from native-born Americans. But in fact, the way the law was written, dreamers have to start at community colleges, and those colleges have open enrollment. When they transfer to a four-year school, they’re considered in the same pool as out-of-state applicants.”

Perhaps the day’s most emotional sales pitch in support of the Maryland Dream Act came from 19-year-old Joel Sati, a native of Nairobi, Kenya, who was brought to the United States at the age of 9.

“When I turned 17, my mom took me to the MVA to get a learner’s permit. I needed proof of residency and we didn’t have it, so we left,” he told the crowd. “I didn’t find out I was undocumented until I applied to college later that year. It asked for my Social Security number and I didn’t have one. Because of my status, I was unable to apply for scholarships.”

Sati said he was “thrown into a crash course on how life is without papers” — a life that prevented him from getting a job or opening a bank account.

“I wanted to help my mother pay the rent, but I couldn’t because I had no papers. All this sent me into a soul-crushing depression. I even resented my mother because she did this to us. I was ashamed to be an immigrant.”

On Dec. 19, 2011, Sati said, he came dangerously close to committing suicide, but then thought better of it.

“I stand before you, glad that I didn’t make that decision,” he said. “And now I ask you to be a support system to anyone who may be in that position. So many people have the skills and intelligence to be successful citizens, but the current system stops them from doing so.”