Maryland's Dream Act, which allows some illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition at public colleges and universities, has drawn attention far out of proportion to its actual impact. Only a few hundred students are likely to be eligible for the benefit in any given year, but because it touches on the issue of who should be in this country and how we treat them, it has led to vocal and passionate campaigns on both sides. But there's a practical component to the issue, too. The Dream Act is a good investment for Maryland taxpayers, and for that reason, voters should support Question 4 on November's ballot.

More than a dozen states have Dream Acts, and Maryland's eligibility criteria are the strictest. It requires students to attend a Maryland high school for at least three years and graduate. It requires that their parents pay taxes in Maryland for at least three years and that the students attend community college for two years before transferring to a four-year institution.

Two elements of the law frequently give voters pause. The first is the question of whether illegal immigrants really pay taxes. They do. The IRS grants taxpayer identification numbers to foreign nationals in lieu of a Social Security number. It may seem illogical that someone living and working in this country illegally would voluntarily pay taxes, but many do because it accrues to their benefit if they are ever able to get on a path to legal status and citizenship.

The second qualm many voters have is whether this law would somehow allow illegal immigrants to take away seats at Maryland colleges that otherwise would have gone to citizens. That won't happen. The community college requirement means Dream Act students won't be competing with others for seats in the freshman class. And the law specifies that those who transfer two years later must be counted as out-of-state students for admissions purposes, which means they are not competing with other Marylanders.


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The rewards, meanwhile, are substantial. Providing Dream Act students with the chance for a better education means they will contribute more to the economy (and tax base) and cost less in social services and other government spending. A recent UMBC study pegged the net lifetime benefit at $66 million for each year's crop of Dream Act students.

Whatever Maryland voters think about the nation's immigration policy, surely they can recognize that Question 4 is a good deal.