Oscar Moreno

Oscar Moreno, a senior at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute whose parents entered the country from Mexico illegally, says the Dream Act is his only chance of going to college. (Doug Kapustin / Photo for Baltimore Sun / October 16, 2012)

First of three articles about state ballot issues

On some level, Oscar Moreno knew growing up that his family did not have permission to live in the United States.

But it wasn't until now, as the 17-year-old Baltimore Polytechnic Institute senior makes plans for a career in architectural engineering, that it seemed to matter. As an illegal immigrant — his mother brought him over the border from their native Mexico when he was five — Moreno does not qualify for in-state tuition at the University of Maryland.

He's campaigning for the Maryland Dream Act — his only real chance, he says, at affording college.

On the other side of the ballot fight, Brad Botwin opposes tuition breaks for illegal immigrants.

The 55-year-old Montgomery County man speaks with pride of his grandparents and great-grandparents, Jews who emigrated from what is now Belarus, landed at Ellis Island, shortened the family name, learned English and pooled their money to send their children to college.

But Botwin, an analyst and manager for the federal government, objects to those who break the rules — sneaking over the border or overstaying their visas — and take jobs that Americans would work and use services he funds with his taxes.

On Nov. 6, Maryland voters will decide whether to extend the in-state tuition discount at the state's public colleges and universities to some undocumented students. To qualify, students must have been brought to the United States as children, have attended at least three years of high school in Maryland, and come from families that have filed state tax returns, among other requirements.

Legislative analysts estimate that the measure would cost Maryland $3.5 million per year. But some researchers say the students will get better jobs if they go to college and eventually pay millions more in taxes.

The proposal was approved last year by the General Assembly and signed into law by Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat. But opponents mounted the state's first successful petition drive in two decades, gathering more than 108,000 signatures to suspend the law and let the voters decide.

Question 4 has drawn supporters and critics. But for some — from the students who would benefit to the taxpayers who don't want to subsidize the education of illegal immigrants — the issue is personal.

Botwin founded Help Save Maryland six years ago to battle laws and programs that he says lure illegal immigrants to the state. His principal target now: the in-state tuition break.

"We're not stopping anyone from going to college," he says. "We're not rounding anyone up. … If the system allows you to work somehow or other, God bless. But I think, at this stage, college education? You're really on your own."

Without such assistance, Moreno says, he has no chance of paying for college.

"A lot of smart people have a lot to offer the state," says Moreno, whose grade-point average last year was 3.77 out of 4. "If they allow the people that are actually trying in school, that actually have good grades in school, no matter their race or their documentation, they could actually better things."

For Moreno, the passage of Question 4 could mean a career. He wants to study architectural engineering at College Park. Math comes naturally to him, he says, as does drafting.

"I think it would be really cool to design buildings, make everything more environmentally friendly," he says.

But without the in-state tuition break, he says, "I can't really go to college. I don't have the money for out-of-state tuition, and I can't get any financial aid, because I don't have a Social Security number."

Botwin sees the question as one of fairness.