July 14, 2011

OPPONENTS OF Maryland’s Dream Act — the law that would grant in-state tuition discounts to undocumented immigrants provided they attend a Maryland high school and they or their parents pay taxes — appear to have gathered well over 100,000 petition signatures. Barring judicial intervention or other unforeseen twists, that’s more than enough to suspend the law’s implementation and put it up for a referendum on the 2012 ballot.

There is little surprise in the opponents’ success, especially given the relative technological ease of online petition drives. That helped produce thousands of signatures, with an assist from what one organizer called the “passion and rage” surrounding a measure that would give a leg up to undocumented immigrants while so many citizens are hurting.

Times of economic duress have traditionally fed such anti-immigration fervor in America, in the past directed at Irish, Italians, Chinese and others seen as outsiders. Maryland’s jobless rate of 6.8 percent, while much lower than the national average, remains almost double its level before the recession. In the Free State, as elsewhere, many Americans worry that any government benefits extended to undocumented immigrants may somehow result in a zero-sum calculus, depriving financially stressed citizens of assistance to which they are rightfully entitled.

The concerns about Maryland’s Dream Act are understandable; they’re also misplaced. They fail to recognize that the law is overwhelmingly in the state’s interest. Implement it, and thousands of ambitious, promising youngsters who have grown up in Maryland will have a chance to realize their potential as productive, taxpaying members of society. Repeal it, and those same youngsters will swell the ranks of the underclass, paying less in taxes, consuming more in services and living lives soured by the frustration of unrealized potential.

The demographic targeted by the Dream Act consists largely of teenagers who were brought by their parents to the United States, often as young children. Many have relatives who are citizens. They have grown up speaking English and are loyal to their adoptive country, attending and graduating from high school and regarding themselves as American in most or every way.

Their undocumented status is not their fault, and there is no precedent in American history for punishing children for the actions of their parents. Having invested, in some cases, $200,000 in state, local and federal funds into educating undocumented students from kindergarten through high school, why would Maryland want to cut short their development by putting college out of their reach?

Unfortunately, that is the reality now. Undocumented immigrants seeking to attend the University of Maryland at College Park in the academic year starting in September would be required to pay the out-of-state rate of $26,026 in tuition and fees. Even if they have attended Maryland public schools all their lives — even if they are straight-A students, debating champions or star athletes — they are ineligible for the in-state rate of $8,655.

Opponents of the measure include every Republican in the state legislature, plus a handful of Democrats. They argue that granting tuition breaks to illegal immigrants would cost the state’s university system heavily in terms of lost tuition revenue. In fact, the cost issue is a red herring.

No more than a few hundred undocumented students are thought likely to qualify for the discounted tuition annually. That’s a drop in the ocean of roughly 26,000 new students who enter Maryland’s four-year colleges and universities each year. Moreover, the Dream Act specifies that undocumented students would not be included in the tally of enrolled in-state residents, so they would not displace a single Maryland student. Tellingly, none of Maryland’s college or university presidents oppose enrolling undocumented students.

By 2016, the Dream Act would cost the state just $3.5 million, according to nonpartisan state legislative analysts. But that modest investment would be more than offset by the future income the state (and the nation) would realize from better educated residents who would be qualified for higher-paying jobs and pay more in taxes.

Last year, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimated that opening the door of higher education to undocumented immigrants would increase national revenue by $2.3 billion over 10 years and cut the deficit by $1.4 billion.

Opponents argue that the Dream Act will make Maryland a magnet for further illegal immigration, thereby stiffening competition for jobs that native Marylanders could fill. In fact, numerous studies have shown that immigrants don’t steal jobs; they create them by expanding the scope of economic activity. That’s particularly true of better-educated immigrants.

But why provide higher education to students who are not legally employable upon graduation? First, the reality is that undocumented immigrants — an estimated 7 million of them nationwide — do hold jobs; legal or not, they are in demand in the workplace. Second, some of the students who would benefit from the measure are in the process of applying for green cards and may eventually qualify as permanent residents and citizens. Why limit their education?

Finally, it’s foolish to assume that Congress will indefinitely ignore 11 million undocumented immigrants, most of whom are deeply embedded in American communities and the economy. When Congress finally recognizes reality — and, yes, grants amnesty to undocumented immigrants with deep roots and clean records here — it is in everyone’s interest that as many as possible are college-educated.