ANNAPOLIS -- Jesus Perez's mother always encouraged him to work hard and go to college, so he could make something of himself.
"I want to have a purpose, a profession," Perez, 18, said.
But Perez is undocumented. Born in Mexico, Perez came to the United States when he was 5. In Maryland, he can only attend college if he pays out-of-state tuition, which is often up to three times more expensive than in-state or in-county tuition reserved for legal Maryland residents.
Now, legislators in the Maryland General Assembly are debating a bill that would let students like Perez, who graduate from Maryland high schools but do not have legal status, pay in-state or in-county tuition. Advocates on both sides of the issue are expected to descend on Annapolis Wednesday to testify on the tuition measure before the Senate committee on Education, Health, and Environmental Affairs.
Sen. Victor Ramirez, D-Prince George's, a lead sponsor of the legislation, said the bill would keep Maryland's workforce educated.
"It (going to college) is the dream of many high school students," Ramirez said.
The bill would allow any student to pay in-state or in-county tuition as long as they graduated from a Maryland high school and attended that school for at least two years.
Their parents also need to prove that they had Maryland income taxes deducted from their paychecks for the year before their child graduated.
The bill also requires "that an undocumented student provides to the public institution of higher learning an affidavit stating the individual will file an application to become a permanent resident within 30 days after the individual becomes eligible to do so."
Advocates for in-state tuition for undocumented students call it a fairness issue.
"We consider education the basis to solve social problems," said Susana Flores, communications specialist for Casa de Maryland, an immigration advocacy group.
"We are talking about human beings that through no fault of their own came to this country. They have a right to be educated," Flores said.
But opponents, including House Minority Leader Anthony O'Donnell, R-Calvert, said the bill encourages illegal activity.
"I think it says to people that have come to this country illegally, 'come to Maryland. We'll give you special treatment. We'll give you treatment we don't even give our fellow Americans,'" O'Donnell said.
The bill, he said, would give preference to undocumented students over Maryland citizens.
"We believe that it's increasingly difficult for a Maryland kid to get into a Maryland university, so why should we displace Maryland kids out of those seats with people who are here illegally?" O'Donnell said.
The bill is at the heart of a state and national debate over illegal immigration.
In Maryland, Delegate Pat McDonough, R-Baltimore County, has introduced 16 bills to crack down on illegal immigration. Among them is a bill that would require employers to use E-Verify, the federal electronic system to verify a person's work eligibility, and an Arizona-style bill to require local police to enforce federal immigration laws.
Nationally, 11 states allow undocumented students to pay in-state tuition. Last December, the DREAM Act, a federal bill that gave a path to citizenship for undocumented students and recent grads, failed in Congress.
The Maryland General Assembly passed an in-state tuition bill in 2003 but it was vetoed by then-Gov. Robert Ehrlich. The fiscal impact of that bill was estimated to be minimal, since more students going to college, even paying the lower rate, would increase overall revenue for the state.
This time around, proponents of the bill are confident they won't be derailed.
"It's going to be approved. The momentum is there. We have the votes to do it," Ramirez said.
For Perez, getting a college degree would be a dream come true.
"As a student, I don't ask for anything for free," Perez said. "We just want what's in our rights. We won't be taking anything away from anybody ... We want to give back to the community."
Note: Jesus Perez and Susana Flores were interviewed in Spanish and their comments translated to English.