College students and immigration groups in Maryland filed a lawsuit Monday to defend a state law that gives undocumented immigrants in-state tuition.

Opponents of the law have launched a petition drive that will put the law on the ballot in 2012 for voters to decide. Because the petition drive was certified by the state elections board, the law has yet to take effect.

Attorneys for groups that favor the law went to court to challenge the certification of the petition drive. Joe Sandler, an attorney for the plaintiffs, contended the legislation cannot be put to a referendum because it provides government funding for education.

"Maryland's constitution forbids subjecting that kind of law to a referendum, precisely to prevent the kind of disruption in government programs and operations that the filing of this petition has caused," Sandler said during a news conference outside Anne Arundel County Circuit Court.

Sandler also argued that the board improperly validated thousands of signatures gathered online that he says are susceptible to fraud.

Last month, the Maryland State Board of Elections validated 108,923 signatures collected in the petition drive. Opponents of the legislation needed 55,726 to put the measure on the ballot.

However, Sandler argued that more than 57,000 signatures should not have been validated. Of them, nearly 44,000 were written on forms in which information like name, date of birth and address were computer-generated.

"There's no safeguard to make sure that they're the person ... whose name is appearing on the form," Sandler said.

Sandler, who is representing students, teachers and the immigrant service group Casa de Maryland, also said another 3,800 people signed forms that did not contain a summary or the text of the law, and more than 8,000 failed to meet other requirements under state law and regulations.

Opponents of the legislation described the lawsuit as frivolous.

"This is 2011, not 1911, and the Internet is used all over the country for various petition campaigns, including some supported by Casa," said Delegate Patrick McDonough, R-Baltimore County.

Wendy Hercules, a 16-year-old Silver Spring student at Spring Brook High School, said she has been a student activist in support of the legislation because she has family and friends who have come to the United States looking for the American dream.

"We look forward to winning this lawsuit and getting youth into college," she said.

The legislation was approved by the General Assembly this year and would have taken effect July 1 if not for the petition drive. Now, it's on hold until voters weigh in next year or a judge issues a ruling.

The measure would allow undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition at public colleges under certain conditions. First, a student must have attended a secondary school in Maryland for at least three years and have graduated from a high school in the state. Students also would have to show that either they or their parents have filed Maryland income tax returns annually for three years while they attended a high school in Maryland during any period between graduation and registration at community college.

The lawsuit points out the measure's financial significance to students. For example, one student would be able to pay $3,030 to attend Baltimore City Community College, based on 30 credit hours per year. However, because the law has not taken effect, the student would have to pay $6,690 instead next year to attend.

Based on reporting by The Associated Press.

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