Ricardo Campos was born in El Salvador, but it was three years ago in a hospital room at Johns Hopkins Hospital that he was given life. Suffering from bone cancer, he underwent surgery in 2009 that required him to use a wheelchair for one year, until he could learn to walk again.
On Saturday, Campos said, he put his gift to its best use yet.
The 23-year-old pre-medicine student at Montgomery Community College marched to the University of Maryland, College Park with about 1,000 other immigrants in support of the Maryland Dream Act. The proposed law to allow in-state tuition rates for the children of illegal immigrants will come before voters next month.
"I can say I took baby steps in this country," said Campos, who has lived in the U.S. since he was 12 and wants to continue his studies at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. He wants to become an oncologist.
"An immigrant gave me my life back in that hospital, and I want to give that to somebody else. But Maryland's laws, they're cutting off my wings, my dreams of giving back to this state and this country."
The march, organized by immigrant advocacy group Casa de Maryland, is the last major demonstration aimed at garnering support for the Dream Act before the Nov. 6 election.
"We have a deep faith in Maryland voters, that when confronted with all of the facts, they will vote for Question 4," said Gustavo Andrade, Casa's organizing director.
After passing the General Assembly, the act met opposition and was brought to a referendum after a philosophical battle among lawmakers, some of whom contended that undocumented children weren't entitled to a discount in an already cash-strapped university system.
On hand Saturday to dispel that argument was Javier Miyares, the recently appointed president of the University of Maryland University College — introduced as the first Latino ever to be appointed a college president in Maryland.
Miyares, who was born in Cuba, spoke on behalf of the state's higher education system, and college presidents from around the region who he said supported the Dream Act.
"We have already invested in you, your elementary education, your secondary education, and we need your drive, your ambition, your dreams," he said. "We need them to help build and assist in making a better America. We need all the educated people we can get."
For illegal immigrants to qualify for in-state tuition under the act, they must have attended a Maryland high school for at least three years before graduating or obtaining a GED. Students or parents must have filed state income taxes.
The law also requires that students who take advantage of the provision attend community college for the first two years. If voters approve, Maryland would become the first state where such a measure has been upheld in a referendum.
Students, families, volunteers and advocates assembled at the organization's Langley Park location, where they rallied to drum sets and decorated buckets, proclaiming they were "undocumented, unapologetic, and unafraid."
In emotional speeches, students rallied their counterparts around their dreams of owning bakeries, becoming journalists, and being fashion designers like Carolina Herrera and Oscar de la Renta.
Shortly after, the sidewalks of University Parkway became a sea of blue T-shirts, multilingual signs, and fluorescent green promotional leaflets, as a chorus of "Si, Se Puede" and horns of supportive motorists drew residents, patrons and business owners to the streets of the heavily populated immigrant community.
Andrade said the march's destination was the University of Maryland, College Park because it's the preferred university for many immigrant students — who would pay $8,000 as opposed to $24,000 to attend the school if the act is upheld.
"We have the opportunity to tell all students in Maryland that they belong," Andrade said.
Carmen Garcia, whose daughter, Veronica, graduated from High Point High School in June, said through a translator it was "sad" that her daughter had to put college on hold until she could afford it.
"It's something big for us parents because we wish the best for our kids," Garcia said. "This is an opportunity for a brighter future."
Maria Alvarez, the mother of a high-school and college student who came to the U.S. from Mexico, said she hoped the march would encourage others to speak up.
"My voice is not strong alone, we need everybody's voice to talk about the dream," she said. "You know — like Martin Luther King."
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