Montgomery College sued over illegal immigrant policy
School is breaking law by granting in-county tuition, McDonough says
Three Montgomery County residents filed a lawsuit against Montgomery College on Thursday seeking to overturn its practice of granting the lowest tuition rates to some illegal immigrants.
The lawsuit, filed in Montgomery County Circuit Court, claims the college is breaking the law by allowing recent graduates of the county's public schools regardless of their immigration status to attend the college at the in-county tuition rate.
Those who oppose the policy say it is costing the state millions of dollars annually and preventing U.S. citizens from attending the school. Supporters, however, say the policy is lawful and helps make college affordable for the students.
At the same time, Sen. Victor Ramirez (D-Dist. 47) of Cheverly and Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr. (D-Dist. 18) of Kensington are preparing to introduce legislation that would make undocumented students eligible for in-state tuition at Maryland's public colleges and universities if they meet certain criteria.
State law prohibits undocumented students from receiving a reduced rate, and such students also are ineligible for financial aid through the federal government.
Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) and other elected leaders and college officials say they support the college's policy, which they believe is legal.
The college released a statement Thursday saying, "The college adheres to all laws and regulations regarding the information submitted for state aid."
The college has a long-standing practice of enrolling local high school students at in-county rates within three years of graduation. Montgomery College's board of trustees officially adopted the policy in late 2010, after McDonough spoke publicly about the situation.
Students who have not graduated from MCPS within three years must prove residency to determine their tuition rate.
The lawsuit was filed by Michael Lee Philips, of Rockville, and Patricia Fenati, of Damascus both of whom ran for office on the Republican ticket in 2010 and David Drake, a 69-year-old county resident.
"It's taxpayer waste, fraud and abuse," said Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, which he describes as a bipartisan watchdog group that is representing the residents in their lawsuit against the college.
During a news conference Thursday in Annapolis, Fitton said he estimates the cost of providing lower tuition rates to illegal immigrants to be as much as $8 million. An audit from 2009 showed that illegal immigrants took 11,000 credit hours at the college that year.
"It's an unfair practice," said Del. Patrick L. McDonough (R-Dist. 7) of Middle River. "They are taking slots away from American citizens and legal immigrants."
McDonough has been vocal on immigration issues and said he plans to introduce 16 bills session related to immigration during the current legislative.
In November, McDonough called for the college to be cut off from state funding because of its tuition practices.
The college, which has 26,000 undergraduate students on three campuses, has a fiscal 2011 operating budget of $208 million, about $30.6 million of which comes from the state. The remainder comes from the county (47 percent) and student tuition and fees (38 percent).
Montgomery County Public Schools graduates pay in-county tuition of $107 per credit hour. In-state tuition is $219 per credit hour, and out-of-state residents pay $299.
For Yves Gomes, 18, of Silver Spring, paying the in-county rate is the only way he could afford to attend the college, where he enrolled in the fall, he said.
Gomes, who is an undocumented immigrant, was born in India but moved to the United States when he was 1 year old. He is a graduate of Montgomery County Public Schools, making him eligible for the lowest tuition rate.
About 30 percent of MCPS graduates go to Montgomery College in their first year after high school, and 60 percent enroll by the second year. About 10,000 students graduate from MCPS annually.
The school system does not track the immigration status of its students because it is prohibited by federal law.
Gomes was scheduled to be deported last year, but was granted a rare reprieve by the federal government. His parents were deported in 2008, and Gomes is using money from the sale of his family home to pay his tuition.
Gomes says he hopes to attend Montgomery College for two years before enrolling in the University of Maryland, College Park.
"I was hoping to get my undergrad in biology," he said Thursday. "I want to be a doctor one day."
Gomes says that he and other undocumented students have discussed proposals to raise their tuition.
"It's rough because that's our future," he said. "Basically, they are trying to make it hard for us."
Kim Propeack, the political director for Casa of Maryland, a nonprofit organization that supports Latinos and immigrants, says a few dozen undocumented students are attending the college at the lower tuition rate.
She questioned why McDonough, who lives in Baltimore County, would be concerned with an issue in Montgomery County.
Help Save Maryland, a group opposed to illegal immigration, estimates that as many as 300,000 illegal immigrants are living in Maryland, although the number living in Montgomery County is less clear because it is not tracked, said the group's director, Brad Botwin, who lives in Rockville.
He questioned why taxpayers were funding the lower tuition rates for undocumented immigrants who cannot work legally in the country.
Montgomery County Council President Valerie Ervin (D-Dist. 5) of Silver Spring says helping make college affordable for all students will benefit the local economy.
"I see no problem with allowing children of immigrants to attend college and not make it cost prohibitive for them to participate in our economy," she said.