With federal legislation perpetually stalled in Congress, 13 states have taken the Dream Act into their own hands, passing legislation to provide in-state tuition and reduce other funding barriers so that undocumented immigrants can attend college. Last week Maryland became the first state to try to overturn its version of the act.
The Maryland State Board of Elections announced Thursday that opponents to the Dream Act had collected the required 55,736 signatures, or 3 percent of voters from the last gubernatorial election, that are needed to put the law up for referendum on the ballot next November.
By Monday morning, the petition had 77,920 verified signatures.
"The Maryland referendum will really give lawmakers at the state and federal level a gauge for how American taxpayers feel about extending taxpayer benefits and subsidies to illegal aliens who are not taxpayers themselves," said Kristen Williamson, a spokeswoman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform.
Maryland Sen. Victor Ramirez, who sponsored the bill, said the only reason people oppose the law is because they do not know what is actually in it.
According to the law, undocumented immigrants must attend a Maryland high school for at least three years, earn a diploma, prove their parents pay taxes and enroll in a community college paying out-of-state tuition for two years before they are eligible for in-state tuition at a four-year public university.
"I think the economy is bad, and opponents are playing off peoples' worst fears that we are giving away free tuition," Ramirez said. "And that is absolutely false."
Sen. Dick Durbin has introduced the Dream Act in the U.S. Senate every session since 2001. The closest it ever came to becoming law was in 2010, when it passed in the Democrat-controlled House but was eight votes shy of overcoming a filibuster in the Senate.
The law under discussion at the federal level does not give any tuition breaks to undocumented immigrants but allows children who were brought to the country illegally when they were under the age of 15 to become permanent residents if they completed two years of college or enrolled in the military.
Opponents of the federal bill say it would grant amnesty to people who broke the law and create more competition for jobs at a time when even American citizens cannot find work. Job data released Friday showed the unemployment rate rose to 9.2 percent in June.
"They are creating a situation where illegal immigrants are given the opportunity to compete with American workers, and that's not improving the economic situation of the country," Williamson said. "Americans will continue to be unemployed and will have further competition from illegal aliens."
Durbin's bill is unlikely to pass this year because there is little chance he can muster the 60 Senate votes needed to overcome a filibuster, and there's virtually no chance of it passing the Republican-controlled House.
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano testified in favor of the bill in June at the first-ever Senate hearing on the Dream Act.
"The Dream Act is a commonsense piece of legislation that is in keeping with core American values," said Duncan at the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. "It goes against our basic sense of fairness to shut the educational door to young people because of the choices of their parents."
President Obama is a staunch supporter of the Dream Act, having said it is "important to our economic competitiveness, military readiness and law enforcement efforts." After it failed to past the Senate in 2010, the president vowed not to give up on the act because "it is not only the right thing to do for talented young people who seek to serve a country they know as their own, it is the right thing for the United States of America."
Tamira Ramirez, whose parents brought her to the United States illegally when she was 15 years old, said she is tired of Obama's "sweet words."
"We need more," she said while attending the left-leaning Campus Progress Conference in Washington, D.C. last week. "And although he's only human, he's got to become a superhuman because he's the president."
Ramirez grew up in D.C. and graduated from Beloit College in Wisconsin last year but is still undocumented. She said if she ever got deported to El Salvador, she would probably be killed because she is a lesbian and "that's just not the way it goes" in Latin America.
"We didn't walk into this," Ramirez said. "We just got here somehow, and now we need to find a way to make the best of it and we can't if we don't have the keys to open those doors that apparently are closed. We need a way."