Immigrant students have right to learn

April 25, 2011

Next to same-sex marriage, the greatest hot-button issue in Annapolis this year was a bill that offers in-state tuition to undocumented Maryland students.

Illegal immigration is a serious issue, no doubt, and we do not disparage those with legitimate concerns about it on a broader scale. But, too often, illegal immigration is used as a wedge issue by callous politicians trying to win votes by playing on people’s fears.

The sky-is-falling cries that accompanied the tuition bill this session fall into the latter category of fear for fear’s sake. There is nothing worrisome about this measure. It’s not only the humane thing to do, it’s sound policy that will help the state’s people as a whole — whether they were born here or not.

This bill has been subjected to purposeful distortion to the point that the average citizen could be excused for thinking that it will pull Maryland-born, tuition-paying students out of classrooms and replace them with freeloading roofers just arrived from Honduras.

Here are the facts: Students have to have attended at least three years of high school here and two years of community college. Their parents must prove that they are paying their taxes. And the students will still pay tuition — this isn’t a scholarship program that gives undocumented students a free ride at taxpayer expense or costs a native Marylander his financial aid.

In fact, many of the kids who are the target of this bill have been in Maryland most of their lives. They are fully Americanized and often speak without a trace of an accent, if that’s what matters to people who like to break it down into terms of “them” versus “us.” The kids came here with their parents years ago; they had no choice in the matter and, in some cases, wouldn’t even recognize their “home” country. It’s difficult, if not cruel, to say that they should be treated as if they don’t belong here.

And beyond this, these young adults have something to offer every one of us. They are talented enough to succeed in school and will go on to treat our illnesses, design our buildings and help manage our companies.

They will pay taxes that more than compensate for — for what, paying the same tuition rate that every other Marylander pays? That’s the point; there is no cost to us in this bill — in fact, it will generate revenue for our schools because these students might not be able to afford college at all if they had to pay out-of-state costs. The only danger is that we might become known as a state that is friendly toward the best and brightest foreign students. We see that not as a risk, but as a benefit.

If the nation operated differently, and deportation laws against illegal immigration were strictly enforced, this might be another matter. But that’s an argument for another day. As it stands, the children of illegal immigrants are allowed to grow up here with little or no interference. It would be wrong to penalize these students by pretending otherwise.

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