ILLEGAL IMMIGRANTS are entitled to a free public education through high school. Thanks to President Obama’s executive order this spring, more than 1 million of them are now eligible for temporary work permits. But even as America slouches toward recognition that undocumented youngsters are here to stay, most states continue to bar them from receiving in-state tuition benefits at public colleges. That self-defeating stance saps their ability to realize their ambitions and to contribute more to the U.S. economy.

Voters in Maryland are in a position to right that wrong by ratifying the state’s Dream Act at referendum this fall. Doing so is critical to the hopes of youngsters graduating from Maryland high schools and to the state’s economic vitality.

The legislation, enacted in 2011, would extend in-state tuition rates, which are much cheaper than those for out-of-staters, to undocumented students who entered the country as children, graduated from Maryland high schools and hail from families that file tax returns. Native-born students would suffer no increased competition for admission, since undocumented applicants would compete with out-of-state students,

If the debate over Maryland’s Dream Act once seemed abstract, it shouldn’t now that the federal government is accepting applications from undocumented youngsters to stay and work legally in this country. Tens of thousands of them lined up in Chicago, in Los Angeles and elsewhere, seeking guidance and discussing their hopes for a productive, upwardly mobile future in the only country they consider their own.

In most cases, it was absurd to classify them as “undocumented,” an irony not lost on a New York Times reporter who noted that they came with “school transcripts, awards for academic achievements and sports victories, high school and college diplomas, letters of recommendation, pay stubs, bank statements, rent checks, tax returns.” That was a useful reminder that the immigrants, though they entered the country illegally as children or overstayed their visas, are integrated into American life.

A new report from the Partnership for a New American Economy, a bipartisan group of mayors and business leaders, found that immigrants are more than twice as likely to start businesses than are native-born Americans, and were responsible for more than a quarter of all new businesses started in 2011. Collectively, the study found, immigrant-founded businesses employ a tenth of the private-sector work force.

Unleashing and encouraging that work ethic and entrepreneurial drive should be the task of government at all levels. Some states don’t get that — think of Arizona, where Gov. Jan Brewer (R) issued an order barring driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants even if they receive work permits. Other states, like Maryland, have a chance to unlock the potential of a class of immigrants ready and willing to contribute to the nation’s future success.