WASHINGTON (CNS) — The immigration status of Maryland students will no longer be an obstacle to them receiving lower tuition rates available to other in-state residents, after 59 percent of voters approved a referendum Nov. 6.

The Maryland Catholic Conference and other church leaders were among supporters of the law, likened to the federal DREAM Act, which has languished in Congress.

The law will require students to first obtain an associate’s degree or at least 60 hours of credit at a community college before they are eligible for the in-state tuition rate at a four-year state university. It will extend to Maryland residents who lack legal immigration status, and who meet other requirements, the same reduced rate available to other Marylanders. At the University of Maryland in College Park, for example, full-time in-state undergraduates pay about $4,400 a semester, while the out-of-state rate is about $13,600 a semester.

The law was passed by the Maryland General Assembly in 2011, but opponents forced a public referendum.

The Maryland Catholic Conference, which advocates for public policy on behalf of the state’s bishops, said the election result shows “what can be achieved when voters are able to learn the plain facts about an issue.” A statement from the conference said a coalition of supporters working with churches and schools helped explain “the fairness of allowing immigrant students who pay taxes, work hard and graduate from our high schools to pay the same in-state tuition rate as their other classmates.”

Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori, who advocated for the measure, said it “opens doors for deserving young people in a very appropriate way.”

In an interview with The Catholic Review, Baltimore’s archdiocesan newspaper, Jesus Perez, 20, who campaigned for the law, was ecstatic about its passage.

He said he now plans to enroll in a community college, as a first step to going to a university.

Paying for college will still be difficult, he said, but it now may be possible for him. Perez also said it made him feel good to know as a Catholic that his church supported the measure.

“It’s a joy to know that they have our backs, and they know what’s right,” he said.

Among supporters of the referendum is University of Maryland President Wallace D. Loh, who told The Washington Post that few students are likely to qualify for the benefit each year — perhaps as few as 20.

“Yes, they are undocumented,” Loh told the Post. “But we’re talking about people who came here as children.” He called the issue a matter of “fairness and justice” and said Maryland has a vested interest in providing higher education access, at a low price, to all of its high school graduates.

A dozen other states allow undocumented residents to pay in-state tuition rates. Others are extending the reduced rate benefit to recipients of deferred deportation status, under the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program launched this summer.

That initiative of the Obama administration allows young adults who were brought to the United States as children and who meet various requirements to apply for deferred deportation for two years. Successful applicants also receive a work permit and Social Security number, which some states and some individual schools accept as eligibility for in-state tuition rates.

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Contributing to this story was Maria Wiering in Baltimore.