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Illegal immigration: why eyes will be on Maryland this Election Day

Maryland's in-state tuition referendum is the only big-ticket illegal-immigration issue before voters this Election Day. How Maryland goes could influence other states – and Congress.

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“I would have predicted that question being defeated 60-40, at least,” says state Sen. Jim Brochin (D), who voted against the measure but hasn’t advocated for its defeat as a referendum. "I don’t think [opponents] anticipated the other side being able to make their case.”

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But organizers in favor of Question 4 have raised more than $1 million and built a coalition that includes labor unions, immigration advocates, the NAACP, and faith groups. That’s in contrast to the opposition – a handful of state lawmakers and dedicated grass-roots activists who, as one put it, “clearly don’t have Governor O’Malley hosting dinners for us and raising funds.”

Those opposed to the measure are hoping to make a national statement Tuesday.

“If we lose, it’s, ‘Everyone expected us to lose, because Maryland is such a liberal state,’ ” says Brad Botwin, an activist running Help Save Maryland, which opposes the measure. “If we win, and I’m hopeful that we’re going to, it really shows that this is a nonpartisan issue: cost and fairness to our own kids. College is not emergency health care. College is not K-12 [education]. This is discretionary, and they can pay their own way.”

But DREAM advocates, too, think that winning could be important beyond the state. State legislatures tend to pluck both pro- and anti-illegal immigration legislation from one another, says NSCL's Ms. Morse, citing other red-state legislatures' interest in Arizona’s hard-line immigration law. With the right restrictions and guidelines, Maryland's Question 4 could spread to other like-minded states, too, advocates add.

The requirement that parents of illegal immigrants provide three years' back taxes “has been a novel introduction,” says Kristin Ford, a spokesperson for Educating Maryland’s Kids, which is organizing support for Question 4. “That was an intentional, politically strategic move to shore up more moderate and independent support, and we see that in how well we’re polling.”

What's more, with both presidential candidates promising to move on immigration early in their next term, affirmation of the DREAM concept at the state level could also signal to federal lawmakers that the politics of immigration may not be as toxic as they might otherwise appear.

“You could argue that members of both parties have been shying away from the issue,” says Ms. Martinez de Castro of La Raza.

The measure's victory also would reaffirm that while states from Maryland to Arizona are doing what they can on illegal immigration, they are often working at cross purposes and a comprehensive solution to illegal immigration is beyond their grasp.

“We want to be able to, with a victory, send a message to Congress – as a state, there are some things we can do,” says Ms. Ford, “but what we can’t do is give [undocumented immigrants] a path to citizenship, what we can’t do is protect them from deportation, what we can’t do is give them work permits.”

That, she notes, is the federal government's job alone.

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