This week, Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley signed a bill to require the state's public universities to give undocumented aliens -- generally illegal -- in-state tuition privileges.
The bill, known as the Dream Act, is already the law in ten other states, including California, New York, Texas and Illinois.
But critics argue that the bill will give illegal aliens better treatment than Americans and legal immigrants -- thanks to existing diversity policies at universities.
University of Maryland (College Park) computer science Prof. James Purtilo told FoxNews.com that, during his time as an associate dean, he frequently saw admission officers favor students because of their “undocumented” status.
"They favor students with special circumstances. 'Undocumented alien' would be one of these special circumstances... They help fill out the diversity picture for the admissions office."
"It was just the norm," Purtillo added, "that obviously we need more of these students [undocumented aliens]… 'this student has a real story to tell' would be a common thing the admissions officers would say. Or that 'they're enriching the College Park experience.'"
University of Maryland spokesman Millree Williams said because admissions staff were either busy with commencement ceremonies or on vacation, he was unable to answer questions about the university’s affirmative action policies as of Tuesday morning.
Gustavo Torres, executive director of Casa de Maryland, which pushed for the bill, said he thought the concern over affirmative action was a non-issue. He noted that in the current system, undocumented immigrants are discriminated against in many ways.
“I don't see how [they could have an advantage.] Those kids don't qualify for anything at this point – their only benefit right now is in-state tuition. They can’t get scholarships or anything.”
President Obama also renewed his push last week for a national Dream Act, which would go further and provide a path to citizenship for undocumented students.
“We should stop punishing innocent young people for the actions of their parents,” Obama said at the Mexico-Texas border on Tuesday. “We should stop denying them the chance to earn an education or serve in the military. And that's why we need to pass the DREAM Act.”
Critics of the Dream acts say that affirmative action is simply built into the system for most illegal immigrants.
“Almost everyone who would benefit from the DREAM act would also benefit from affirmative action,” Steven Camarota, the research director for the think tank Center for Immigration Studies told FoxNews.com.
“A state school wouldn't say, well, you're a Dream Act kid, so you don't get affirmative action,” he added. “I worked in admissions at a small college for a while (at Juniata, Pa.) and the affirmative action stuff just runs on auto pilot. If you check the box, you get put in the [affirmative action] applicant pool. That's just how it works.
“We have to ask the question: Can you have mass immigration and affirmative action? Does that lead to a just social policy?”
Affirmative action benefits can be substantial. A study of selective universities by Princeton sociologists Thomas Espenshade and Alexandria Radford found that listing one’s race as “Hispanic” instead of ‘White” increased the likelihood of being admitted by the same amount as scoring an extra 130 points on the SAT. Compared to Asians, the study found, Hispanics receive a 240-point advantage.
Has this played out in states that have already passed Dream Acts? California, which has had a Dream Act since 2001, would seem immune due to a state law forbidding universities from using race as a factor in admissions.
University of California spokesman Ricardo Vazquez told FoxNews.com that their policy is to treat “all students equally in the admissions process without regard to their race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin.”
“Residency status is not taken into consideration at all in the admissions process,” he also noted.
However, the data show that Hispanic students admitted to the University of California system had lower GPAs and SAT scores than White or Asian students who came from families with similar incomes. For example, admitted Hispanic students whose parents made more than $120,000/year had an average SAT score of 1749, while Asian students with parents making that much had an average of 1890, 151 points higher. For Whites it was 1844.
A similar pattern holds for GPAs, and for individual schools within the University of California system. Scores are not separated by legal residency status.
Vazquez said the differences in scores were not due to race, but rather “the school context in which an applicant studied, a broad variety of both academic and nonacademic achievements and talents, and a range of family circumstances beyond income and parental education level.”
Back in Maryland, Purtilo said that one reason he is speaking out about his university’s practices is that he feels they are unfair to U.S. citizens.
“Too bad for the very well prepared student, a U.S. citizen and taxpayer in this state, whose parents might once have thought their kids should have a shot at the flagship campus,” he said.
Dream Act supporters question what is wrong with applying the same policies that apply to citizens – even if it’s affirmative action – to undocumented students. And Torres notes that many undocumented immigrants, despite being in the country illegally, do pay taxes.
“[Despite being undocumented] the parents are working anyway -- and we actually help those parents have a tax ID number, so they can pay taxes.
“This is about opportunities for people. And we prefer those people to be professionals, because when you are a professional, you pay more taxes -- you prosper and make more contributions to society.”
Maryland's Dream Act differs from the other states' acts by only granting in-state tuition if the parents of the undocumented student have paid state taxes for at least three years.
“We really have one of the most conservative Dream Acts,” Torres noted, adding that he places his biggest hopes in a national Dream act that includes a path to citizenship.
“We really, really hope it will happen. It is our dream that the state law will be the base for it.”