How every Marylander benefits from the Dream Act

September 2, 2011

Denisse came to this country when she was 9 months old. She grew up here, English was the first language she spoke, she attended public schools and her parents paid taxes. In short, America is the only home she has ever known. When she graduated from high school with a strong academic record, she had numerous options to continue her education, with scholarship offers from several well-regarded universities. Fortunately for Denisse, a few months prior to her graduation, her parents were granted residency status, allowing her to take full advantage of her opportunities. Because she needed to stay close to home, she enrolled at Montgomery College, later transferring to the University of Maryland at College Park, where she graduated with a 3.75 GPA.

Denisse (who asked that her full name not be used because of the contentiousness of the issue) was lucky, but in a sense we all were. She was not just able to take the next step in her life; she was able to become a productive, engaged citizen giving back to her — yes, her — country.

Unfortunately, however, many young people are ensnared in the trap that Denisse was able to avoid. Educating a child in a public school from kindergarten through 12th grade can easily cost taxpayers more than $100,000. Yet after this substantial public investment is made, many college-ready, college-capable high school graduates are seeing their educational careers short-circuited because of their immigration status and that of their parents. Academic talent and potential in which we have invested so much are going to waste.

The Maryland Dream Act would grant in-state tuition to undocumented Maryland students, provided these students meet several significant requirements, including that they first complete 60 credits or receive an associate degree from a Maryland community college. This is an issue that stirs passion, and there are people of goodwill on both sides. From our perspectives — as an educator and a businessman — the Maryland Dream Act should be supported, not just as a matter of justice or fairness, but, quite frankly, for purely practical reasons.

While the cost of this initiative is modest, the positive impact on these students and the state will be considerable. Maryland, like the rest of the nation, has pressing workforce needs in the new economy areas of science and engineering, as well as the traditional areas of nursing and teaching. It is in all our best interests that as many Marylanders as possible (citizens and residents alike) are college-educated. The governor, Maryland General Assembly and University System of Maryland have all embraced the goal of having 55 percent of Maryland’s young people hold two- or four-year degrees by 2020. This underscores the fundamental fact that a skilled, educated population is essential for the state’s long-term economic and social prosperity. Given Maryland’s changing demographics, we must make adjustments if we are to realize our goal.

Finally, we must remember that these young people were raised in America, were educated in our schools, have grown up speaking English and consider America to be their home country. They are our children’s classmates and our neighbor’s kids, and there is simply no precedent in American history for punishing children for the actions of their parents.

In addition, the list of requirements that an undocumented student seeking in-state tuition must agree to is arduous and includes a commitment to seek citizenship. And under language included as part of the Maryland Dream Act, not a single Maryland citizen is at risk of being displaced from a University of Maryland institution by the enactment of this policy. These immigrant students would be considered for admission alongside out-of-state applicants but would qualify for resident tuition.

At some point, the nation’s public policy will catch up to reality. As a nation of immigrants, we will ultimately address — at the national level — the issue of undocumented immigrants living, working and paying taxes in our communities. It is inconceivable that the resolution will include mass deportation. By acknowledging the value of Maryland’s educational infrastructure and working to make higher education accessible and affordable to all Maryland residents, we will position ourselves for genuine prosperity and progress.

William E. Kirwan is chancellor of the University System of Maryland. William G. Robertson is president and chief executive of Adventist HealthCare.

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