July 2, 2012

Last month, President Obama announced that the United States will no longer deport law-abiding undocumented young people who were brought to this country before the age of 16, have lived here for five consecutive years and are pursuing higher education or military service. Instead, they will be eligible for temporary work permits, helping them to come out of the shadows of our society and participate more fully in our economy.

I applaud the president for his leadership. Although he knew he would face opposition from some on both sides of the aisle, allowing these hardworking young people an opportunity to make a difference in their communities was the right thing to do for our country, morally and economically.

The president’s announcement was a welcome and long overdue step, but it is by no means a comprehensive solution. In fact, with these young people now legally eligible to work, we need action at the state level more than ever to ensure that they can maximize their contributions to our economy. That means providing them with fair access to a higher education by allowing them to pay the same in-state college tuition rates as their high school classmates.

In Maryland, Gov. Martin O’Malley and I have supported — and the General Assembly has passed — the Maryland Dream Act, which would help these young people give back to communities throughout our state by allowing them to attend state colleges and universities at the in-state tuition rate. Eligible students must have graduated from a Maryland high school, their families must have paid state taxes for three years, males must register for the draft and all must continue to pursue legal immigration status.

These are students who have lived in our communities and paid Maryland taxes. Yet the opponents who are bringing this issue to a referendum in November are taking a shortsighted view that ignores all that these hardworking young people can contribute to our state and nation.

Think of the young Marylander who graduates at the top of his or her class in high school, who volunteers at the local homeless shelter, who has never been in trouble and wants to become a doctor or a lawyer or an engineer. This could be the person who cures cancer or helps bring about advances in civil rights or leads us to energy independence. But without the Maryland Dream Act, if students are undocumented immigrants, they can’t pay the same in-state tuition as their peers. This will deny them the opportunity to reach their potential.

My grandmother came to this country and served as a domestic worker, even for a time without proper documentation. She did this so that my father could become the first member of our family to go to college. He repaid that debt of gratitude by becoming a doctor and dedicating himself to serving those most in need in some of the poorest neighborhoods where I grew up. He and my mother passed along that ethic to their children, teaching us that you must serve others before you serve yourself and instilling in us a belief that every contribution to the community matters, regardless of the source.

Maryland needs the Dream Act because success is not a zero-sum game. The reality is that in cities and towns throughout Maryland, each of us is strengthened when all of us succeed, and we all suffer when members of our communities are kept from reaching their potential. Our state is strong because we embrace diversity and innovation, and because we believe in investing in education for all of Maryland’s children.

The president’s implementation of a deferred-action immigration policy means that many undocumented young immigrants are going to remain an integral part of our communities. Denying these hardworking young Marylanders a fair shot at an affordable education will hurt our state’s future.

If Maryland is going to be economically competitive going forward, we need to give all of our students the same opportunity to become educated, successful members of our workforce. By supporting the Dream Act, we can continue to work toward a brighter future for all Marylanders.

The writer, a Democrat, is lieutenant governor of Maryland, leads the O’Malley-Brown administration’s portfolio on higher education and has worked with Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) to give more Marylanders access to affordable higher education opportunities.