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News Opinion Editorial

Educational opportunity

University of Maryland Baltimore County President Freeman A. Hrabowski III and Texas Gov. Rick Perry don't necessarily have a lot in common, but they can agree on one thing — punishing children because of their parents' actions is not what this country is about.

Both support efforts to make a basic college education more affordable to all residents of their respective states. Earlier this week, Mr. Hrabowski made it clear why he and a broad coalition of community, religious, labor and civil rights groups support the Maryland Dream Act, the 2011 law that ensures that certain Maryland residents can qualify for in-state tuition regardless of their immigration status.

As the nationally acclaimed educator said, everyone benefits when educational opportunities are expanded. "We believe in the importance of education," he told reporters. "It is the best of the American way."

Between now and Nov. 6 when the Maryland Dream Act faces a statewide referendum, much will be said and written about the controversial law. Considering how emotional the topic of immigration can be for many of us, it's vital that voters get a clear picture of what the measure actually means.

Here it is in a nutshell: The law's primary purpose is to help children who came into this country when they were young. They have grown up here. They have gone to school here. They have graduated from high school here. Their parents paid taxes here. This may be the only country they've ever known. But because they were born elsewhere and entered the country illegally, college may not be a viable option because they face tuition rates up to several times higher than for fellow Marylanders, and most are ineligible for aid, loans and scholarships.

These young men and women are motivated, they wish to improve their circumstances and they have the potential to be huge taxpaying assets to the community — at least that's been the experience of the dozen other states with similar laws.

That brings us back to Governor Perry. Texas was the first state in the nation to approve a Dream Act a dozen years ago, and the measure continues to have broad support in a state not known for being soft on anything, let alone immigration. For many, it's just a matter of basic fairness — these are innocent young people, friends and neighbors, trying for a better life.

But it's also simple Western pragmatism. "We don't care where you came from, but where you are going," Mr. Perry said the year he signed the proposal into law, "and we are going to do everything we can to help you get there."

Under Maryland's law, the tuition discount isn't available to just anyone who shows up and enrolls at a community college. A student must have attended a Maryland high school for three years and received a diploma, and they or their parents must have filed for Maryland taxes since they were in high school.

Opponents say that Maryland shouldn't reward such children. They claim doing so might actually encourage illegal immigration (as if college tuition discounts were the driving force behind the nation's 11 million undocumented immigrants). And many simply resent the idea of such kids attending a taxpayer-supported school.

But isn't it far better for these people to be productive members of society than a potential drag on the social safety net? Maryland needs an educated labor force. Even with the downturn in the economy, there have been manpower shortages in certain industries such as nursing and teaching. Ultimately, it is the people of this state who lose when young people, regardless of their origin, are prevented from reaching their full potential.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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