Maryland voters are one step closer to deciding the fate of a new law that grants in-state college tuition to illegal immigrants.

Republican state Dels. Neil Parrott and Pat McDonough said Tuesday they have gathered at least 40,000 signatures against the so-called Dream Act. They were required to collect 18,579 valid signatures by Tuesday and a total of 56,000 by the end of June to bring the issue to a voter referendum next year.

"The average person understands what the word 'illegal' means, whereas politicians don't," McDonough said. "It's a question of fairness. Residents see a person here illegally getting a benefit they have to pay for."

In one of the most contested votes of the General Assembly, lawmakers signed off on the legislation over criticism that it bucked federal law and would cost the cash-strapped state millions of dollars each year.

Hispanic advocates argue that children of illegal immigrants should not be punished for their parents' decisions and that blocking access to tuition breaks puts some at a disadvantage in an already tough job market.

In a compromise, lawmakers added the caveat that illegal immigrants must finish two years at a community college, sign up with the Selective Service system and prove their parents paid state taxes three years before they enroll. Illegal immigrants would be labeled out-of-state students to preserve slots for Marylanders.

Forecasting the fate of voter referendums is tricky, as they deliver unpredictable results. Both sides have vowed to mobilize supporters if the issue makes it to the ballot box.

"I feel sure we're going to get the signatures," McDonough said. "I feel sure it will get 60 percent of the vote. The numbers are overwhelming; the response is overwhelming; there is no doubt the driving force is the passion and anger people have on this issue."

About a dozen states offer cheaper tuition to illegal immigrants, and Democrats have attempted to push the Dream Act through Congress -- but Republicans have united against the legislation.

The collected signatures must be validated by the Maryland State Board of Elections.