ANNAPOLIS—A lawsuit filed by a Washington DC-based watchdog group alleges that a Montgomery College policy that allows illegal immigrants to pay reduced tuition violates state and federal law and has cost taxpayers nearly $6 million over the last three years.
Del. Pat McDonough, a Middle River Republican, announced the lawsuit, which was filed by Washington DC-based Judicial Watch, a government watchdog group.
The college is "taking the approach that this is a politically correct policy and they are above the law," said McDonough, who said he got involved after being approached by the three Montgomery County residents who ultimately became plaintiffs in the lawsuit.
"They came to me because they felt I would respond, and I did," McDonough said.
Judicial Watch filed the suit Thursday in Montgomery County Circuit Court on behalf of Michael Philips, Patricia Fenati and David Drake.
"We want this policy to stop, and we're going to court to stop it," said Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch. "They know what they are doing and they know what the law is and they're consciously evading it."
The lawsuit alleges that Montgomery College charges illegal aliens the in-county tuition rate of $200 per credit hour instead of the out-of-state rate of $284 per credit hour.
Fitton said he believes that unless the community college policy is reversed it will ultimately spread to other state colleges and universities.
In response to the lawsuit, Montgomery College officials said they are simply basing tuition rates on residency.
"Montgomery College offers its lowest tuition rate to all recent Montgomery County Public School (MCPS) graduates," said Montgomery College's communications department, in a statement. "Students who have not graduated from a MCPS high school within the last three years must provide proof of residency to receive the lowest rate, unless otherwise permitted by law."
Philips, speaking at the news conference, said he first became aware of the policy when searching for colleges for one of his children.
"It just seemed grossly unfair," Philips said.
Federal court rulings require states to provide K-12 education to all children regardless of immigration status. That ruling does not apply to state colleges and universities.
Federal law allows in-state tuition rates to be charged to illegal immigrants if the respective state passes a law allowing the practice.
The General Assembly passed such a law in 2003 but it was vetoed by then-Gov. Robert Ehrlich, a Republican.
State Sen. Victor Ramirez, a Prince George's County Democrat, announced earlier this year that he plans to sponsor the Maryland Dream Act—a bill modeled after a proposed federal law that would allow illegal immigrants to receive in-state tuition rates at Maryland colleges and universities.
Sen. Richard Madaleno, D-Montgomery, is supportive of the college and its tuition policies and critical of McDonough.
"By offering in-state tuition to qualifying students, they are helping to ensure that we continue to have a well-educated and dynamic work force, which is a benefit to all Montgomery County residents," said Madaleno, who is also sponsoring the Maryland Dream Act.
"Instead of working to find constructive solutions to the issues that are facing our community, Delegate McDonough is making a name for himself," Madaleno said.
In a similar situation with Prince George's Community College in 2006, the Maryland attorney general issued an opinion saying that the college's board of trustees "currently lacks the authority to extend in-county tuition benefits to undocumented aliens."
The attorney general's opinion, which does not carry the force of law, said in-county tuition is based on residence, which cannot be established by people who entered the country illegally.
"An individual who is neither a citizen of the United States nor lawfully admitted to this country does not have the legal capacity to be domiciled in Maryland," the opinion reads.
Capital News Service reporter Maggie Clark contributed to this story.