March 11, 2011— -- Jesus Perez dreams of being a social worker. The 11th grader hopes to give back by being a saving grace for the disadvantaged in his community.
"I just want to help people," said Perez.
The path to his dream may be more costly than he expected.
Perez is undocumented. He was born in Mexico and came to the U.S. at age 5. A Maryland resident, Perez gets good grades and hopes to attend a Maryland state university. But as it stands, state law requires undocumented students to pay out-of-state tuition, which is often three times the in-state rate.
"I do not want a free education; I just want to pay the same amount of money as any other Maryland resident that attends a university or college," said Perez.
At the University of Maryland, in-state students pay $8,416 in tuition and mandatory fees annually while non-residents are expected to pay $24,831 in tuition and mandatory fees.
"They say the problem is that I'm not legal," said Perez.
Perez was one of nearly 100 immigrant students in Annapolis, Md., recently, demonstrating his support for a proposed new bill that is scheduled to be voted on early next week.
Senate Bill 167, the Maryland version of the Dream Act, would authorize in-state tuition benefits at a local community college to undocumented students who have graduated from a public high school in that county and whose parents can prove they pay Maryland taxes. After two years, they would have the option of transferring to a state university at in-state tuition rates.
Plus, students who are not permanent residents must provide to the public college an affidavit stating that they will file an application to become a permanent resident within 30 days after becoming eligible to do so.
The bill was introduced by Sen. Victor R. Ramirez (D-Prince George's County) and, despite a stormy debate, is expected to pass.
Adding to the student voices was Yolanda Vargas Barba, a Maryland student and permanent resident, who said during the hearing that she wasn't asked to come to the U.S.
"I feel like I am being punished for something that wasn't my choice," said Barba.
Opponents of the Maryland Dream Act say giving undocumented immigrants in-state tuition benefits is unfair to taxpayers.
"This state is broke," said Brad Botwin, director of Help Save Maryland at the bill hearing. "We are broke because of the millions and billions at the state level that we are spending on illegal aliens."
Blake Sutherlin, a lifelong Maryland resident, testified angrily at the first hearing of the bill.
"To take one dime or one ounce of compassion away from a Maryland citizen and give it to these migrant intruders is shameful," he said.
Although Maryland universities are prohibited from offering in-state tuition fees to students who are in the U.S. illegally, Montgomery College, in Montgomery County, has found ways around the law.
At Montgomery College, in-county tuition eligibility is not based on residency but on high school attendance. Anyone who attends a Montgomery County high school for two years is automatically eligible for the in-county tuition rate.
Montgomery public school graduates pay in-county tuition of $107 per credit hour. The in-state rate is $219 per credit hour, and out-of-state residents pay $299.
The school is currently battling a lawsuit filed by county taxpayers last month who claim that the college's in-county tuition policy is against the law and is costing the state millions of dollars.
Students at Montgomery College have mixed feelings about the school's long-standing practice is fair.
Kandace Hoes, a junior, says she doesn't have a problem with undocumented students being accepted into the college but not at the in-state rate.
"When there are legal students like me, struggling to get scholarships, grants and loans, there shouldn't be illegal students getting any money that I personally need for school," said Hoes.
Sophomore Fae Esquig says she thinks the undocumented students should work on getting citizenship, but should still pay the same rate as other students in the county.
Sending a Message
Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, the watchdog group representing the taxpayers who filed the lawsuit against Montgomery College, says the Maryland Dream Act bill sends the wrong message.
"There's this huge moral issue related to all of these illegal aliens being here in the United States," said Fitton, who believes state legislators should be enforcing the law, not bending it.
"Those who cut in line should suffer the legal consequences … that's fair," he continued.
But fairness is a relative term for students who say they would get the short end of the stick by Fitton's standards.
The legality of undocumented students being educated in the U.S. is an ongoing debate.
A 1982 Supreme Court case, Plyler vs. Doe, mandated that states are prohibited from denying immigrant students access to a public education and are required to educate students through high school. But federal law prohibits states from providing in-state rates for public colleges to undocumented immigrants unless the same rates are offered to all students, regardless of their home state.
The federal Dream Act, the bill that would have given young undocumented immigrants the opportunity to obtain legal status if they enrolled in college or joined the military, was passed by the House but blocked by Senate Republicans in December.
Dreamers nationwide have moved their fight for education rights to the state level. Currently, ten states allow undocumented students to pay the in-state tuition rate.
Anna Gutierrez, a Montgomery County delegate and supporter of the Maryland Dream Act, said Maryland is not Arizona, referring to the southwestern state's controversial immigration law (now on hold, pending appeals) that would allow law enforcement officers to demand proof of legal immigration status from anyone they stop.
"We [in Maryland] celebrate diversity," Gutierrez said. "We value the contributions of immigrants and hope to be able to open doors for them that other states are trying to close."
Historically, earning a college degree has been the gateway to success and a means to obtaining a better life in America.
Jesus Perez is waiting for the doors of opportunity to open for him.
"I think I will be happy once we all can work together and leave behind the boundaries that divide us," Perez said.
ABCNews.com contributor Kyla Grant is a member of the ABC News on Campus bureau in Washington, D.C.