A CRUCIAL TEST on illegal immigration will appear on Maryland’s ballot this fall — whether undocumented students shall be eligible for in-state college tuition providing they graduate from a state high school, have a record of filing tax returns and commit to pursuing legal status. That’s the thrust of the state’s so-called Dream Act, the first state law of its kind (not counting a much broader measure in California, in 1994) to get a vote at referendum.

The General Assembly approved the Dream Act last year, but opponents collected enough signatures to put it before voters. It’s critical that it be approved, and not only because teenagers brought to this country as children, through no fault of their own, deserve compassionate treatment. The vote will also send an important signal to supporters of the federal Dream Act, so far spurned by Congress, that would lay out a path to citizenship for unauthorized youngsters who go to college or serve in the military.

For years most of the energy on the immigration debate — on talk radio, in state legislatures, and in Congress — has been monopolized by opponents of reform. With twisted facts and overheated rhetoric, they have stalled progress on overhauling the broken immigration system, while pushing measures designed to harass the 11 million illegal immigrants already in the country.

There will be no shortage of money or activists to oppose the Maryland Dream Act. The question is whether the advocates will put up a fight. That’s why the leadership of Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) is essential — but, by itself, inadequate. He must be joined by other prominent supporters, such as Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D); Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown (D); or Laurene Powell Jobs, widow of Steve Jobs. They could help overcome skeptics in Baltimore and the Washington suburbs. So could local technology executives, who need immigrant engineers for their companies to thrive.

Already, the Dream Act’s foes are distorting the facts. They warn it would make Maryland a magnet for illegal-immigrant families seeking tuition breaks for their kids. But there is no evidence for that in any of the other 11 states that grant in-state tuition to undocumented students.

They argue that native-born students would be displaced from state colleges. But undocumented students would compete with out-of-state applicants, not Marylanders. Opponents contend it’s a waste to encourage unauthorized students to attend college, since they cannot be legally employed — an argument that overlooks the fact that legally or not, 7 million undocumented immigrants have jobs, and the nation depends on them.

It makes no sense for Maryland to educate bright, ambitious youngsters through high school, then deny them a realistic shot at higher education. Maryland will be a litmus test of the proposition that compassion as well as self-interest justify the Dream Act. The state’s leaders have to make the sale.