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Maryland foes of immigrant tuition break may force referendum

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Maryland election officials said on Friday that opponents had collected enough signatures to force a state referendum on a law allowing some undocumented immigrants to pay in-state college tuition.

Opponents of the Maryland law gathered 109,000 signatures, almost double the 55,736 signatures needed to suspend the law until a referendum of state voters in November, 2012.

The law grants in-state tuition discounts to undocumented immigrants who attended a Maryland high school and paid taxes.

The state law resembles one considered by Congress which would give young people who are illegal immigrants but have lived in the United States for at least five years, graduated from high school, and are of "good moral character," a path to citizenship through college or military service.

The so-called "Dream Act" was considered in 2010 but died when the Congressional session ended. Its chances have dimmed since Republicans won a majority in the House of Representatives.

"Today marks the beginning of the end for an illegal alien benefits bill that simply does not make sense," organizer of the petition drive and Maryland General Assembly Delegate Neil Parrott said in a statement.

CASA de Maryland, an immigrant advocacy group that originally pushed for the bill, said that it would challenge the counting of the signatures on the petition.

"Keep in mind that the number of signatures needed to put the issue on the ballot is a small minority of Maryland voters," CASA director Kim Propeack told Reuters in an email.

"If this issue does end up on the November 2012 ballot, we expect a majority of Maryland voters to see the clear benefits of the policy and support educational access for these important Maryland young people."

Twelve states grant in-state tuition eligibility to undocumented immigrants based on attendance and graduation from a state high school, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, South Carolina, and Indiana have laws barring illegal immigrants from in-state tuition benefits.

(Reporting by Wendell Marsh; Editing by Greg McCune)

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