Advocates and opponents of the state’s Dream Act attribute an 8-point swing in favor of it to a large volunteer effort that put the undocumented students face-to-face with the public.
On Tuesday’s election, more than 58 percent of Marylanders approved Question 4, a measure to allow some undocumented students in-state tuition rates. In January, a poll found that Marylanders were evenly split on the measure known as the Maryland Dream Act.
“The [pro-Dream Act campaign] unfairly framed this as a fairness issue, a civil rights issue,” said Brad Botwin, executive director of Help Save Maryland, a nonprofit opposed to the Dream Act. “They pulled on the heartstrings, and that’s all they had to go on.”
“We found out the misinformation was a big issue,” said Dream Act supporter the Rev. Peter Schell, a priest at Calvary Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., and an organizer with Maryland Industrial Areas Foundation, a coalition of congregations and community groups that worked to pass the measure.
To combat the misinformation, “Dream Ambassadors” were trained to speak on the details of the Dream Act and were sent to speak to congregations and community groups throughout Maryland, Schell said.
“We realized early on that we were going to have to focus on our strength, which is relational,” Schell said. “We’re more effective at face-to-face campaigning.
Educating Maryland Kids, a coalition of groups that worked in support of the measure also spent about $1 million on TV and online advertisements. The ads featured prominent Maryland politicians, clergy and undocumented students talking about the Dream Act.
“When you have ad after ad showing attractive, accomplished people, you start thinking, ‘Wow, this is the future of Maryland,’” said Richard Vatz, a professor of political rhetoric at Towson University.
If the opposition was going to have a prayer of winning, Vatz said, they would have needed to show undocumented students as law-breakers to provoke a sense of outrage.
“It’s hard to get a public intensely opposed to something without that outrage,” Vatz said.
The Dream Act was passed by the General Assembly in 2011 but was successfully petitioned to referendum by the organization MDPetitions.com, whose director Del. Neil C. Parrott (R-Dist. 2B) of Hagerstown, said getting it that far was a “great victory.”
“Considering that we were up against the governor, the entire Democratic Party, we had an uphill battle the whole way,” Botwin said.
Parrott and other opponents contended that the Dream Act would take spots in community colleges away from legal resident students, and that it would cost the state $3.5 million each year beginning in 2016, as a state fiscal analysis estimated. An analysis by the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, estimated that about 435 students would take advantage of the Dream Act each year, and that education for those students would in the end benefit state and local governments by $6.2 million each year due to higher wages and less money spent on social programs.
“People want to help, and people want these students to succeed. But you cannot take that out of the context of the larger issue [of illegal immigration].”