Misael Garcia, 22, wants to go to school, major in business and open his own restaurant someday. Though he admits that he didn't grow up thinking he was going to go to college, he was eventually encouraged that he could do it. But when he went to the Community College of Baltimore, he discovered he didn't qualify for in-state tuition, even though he'd been living in Maryland since he was 12.
"It was a really shocking moment," he told Raw Story on Thursday.
Garcia became involved with Casa de Maryland, which worked to pass the Maryland DREAM Act. The measure, passed by the legislature last year and on Tuesday's ballot for a referendum vote, allows undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition rates at the state's public universities. The state passed the measure 58 to 42 percent.
Though Maryland certainly isn't the first to pass such a law -- 11 other states have such measures on the books -- it is the first state to affirm the law by popular vote.
"It's a dream come true, basically, because I put my heart and soul into this issue," Garica said.
What is perhaps more remarkable is that, in an election year marked by high Latino voter turnout, Maryland is a state with a lower-than-national average Latino-identified population. Just 8.4 percent of Marylander's identify as Hispanic or Latino compared with 16.7 percent nationally, according to the latest Census data.
"This is an issue that overwhelmingly affects Hispanic voters, but there are not just Hispanics who are affected by this," Kristin Ford, communications director of the Educating Maryland Kids coalition which worked on Maryland's DREAM Act passage, told Raw Story. She said voters largely saw it as an issue of fairness. If these families paid taxes in Maryland and lived in Maryland, undocumented students should pay in-state tuition in Maryland.
The state also stands to gain economic benefits. A researcher at the University of Maryland Baltimore County estimated that passing the state DREAM Act would result in an additional $5 million per graduating class.
"Looking at this victory, we're hoping it can send a message to Congress, right here in Maryland -- the back yard," Ford said.
Laura Vazquez, immigration legislative analyst for National Council of La Raza, agreed, saying the message is that the country is ready for real immigration reform.
"It sends a strong signal that voters themselves are in a place where they want solutions to address the problems and challenges faced by undocumented youth," she said.
That message is America is ready for real immigration reform. The federal DREAM Act, which was first introduced over a decade ago in congress and came close to passage in the Senate during the final days of Congress in 2009, offers a path to citizenship for young people who came to America as children and attend college or join the military and don't have a criminal record. President Barack Obama signed an executive order earlier this year to stop the deportation of young people who fit these qualifications.
Many believe that helped Obama at the polls, where he earned more than 70 percent of the Hispanic vote. And Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said on Thursday he was "optimistic" the Senate would take up immigration reform following the president's inauguration.
"The results of the election show that for Latino voters who are a fast-growing part of the electorate," Vazquez continued. "I think it says something that the results of the election show Latino voters are decisive. As they say, the road to electoral victory goes through Latino neighborhoods. This is a message we're going to be sending to the Congress."
And the activists who mobilized over the Maryland DREAM Act stand ready to mobilize over broader immigration reform if and when Congress takes it up.
"I feel like we are a lot stronger now just because of the fact that we've passed the Maryland DREAM Act," Garcia said. "When it comes to Congress, I'm here now that I have the skills that I learned I have a feeling that we will keep working. Anything is possible."
Latina college student in glasses (Shutterstock)