Rodricks: For backers of education and veterans, Dream Act is a two-fer

The Baltimore Sun

It hasn't received much attention, but there's a provision in the Maryland Dream Act, up for your approval or rejection on the November ballot, that extends a benefit to veterans. Voters ought to take note of it, because if we vote down the college tuition break for young adults who came here as undocumented immigrants, we'll be saying nay to a generous provision for men and women who served in our military, too.

Says right there, in the last phrase of Question 4 on the statewide ballot: The Dream Act "extends the time in which honorably discharged veterans may qualify for in-state tuition rates."

According to a legislative summary of the Dream Act, veterans of the U.S. armed forces currently have one year after an honorable discharge to apply for the in-state tuition rate at Maryland's public colleges and universities. The new law extends that opportunity by three years.

In Maryland, we are already pretty generous when it comes to educational benefits for members of the military and veterans. Under state law, someone on active duty and stationed here gets the in-state rate on college tuition. So do that person's spouse and any dependent children.

Honorably discharged veterans get the same benefit, even if they lose their Maryland residency status while on duty. To qualify, a veteran has to document attendance at a Maryland high school for at least three years and graduation (or an equivalent diploma) from a Maryland high school. The veteran also has to apply for the benefit — and file the proper documentation — within one year of discharge.

What we're being asked to do, by voting for the Dream Act, is extend that benefit by another three years. And that's a good thing. Let's face it: Few Americans want to deny benefits — or, in this case, the extension of eligibility for a specific benefit — to men and women who've served the country in the military.

Now, I know what you're thinking.

If you oppose the Dream Act, you're thinking, "Why is a benefit to veterans, something I can support, packaged with something I despise: a benefit to illegal immigrants?"

Hey, that's how things are often worked out in the Maryland General Assembly. The military benefit was an amendment to the Dream Act when it percolated through the legislature toward passage in 2011.

This kind of thing is not unusual. In fact, another question on the November ballot asks us to approve the addition of a sixth casino in Maryland while approving table games at all casinos. I've heard from many people who think those things should be separated. These are voters who support table games at the five casinos we authorized at the polls in 2008 but who oppose the sixth casino slated for Prince Georges County.

Come Nov. 6, however, we'll vote the all-inclusive casino measure up or down. There's no line-item voting.

Same with the Dream Act.

If you support the Dream Act, I'm guessing you're like me and fine with the whole thing -- opening wider the eligibility window for veterans to receive the in-state college tuition rate while extending the same benefit to undocumented immigrants.

These young adults, many of whom came into the country with their parents, have been educated in Maryland public schools and received diplomas from Maryland high schools. They have asked that they be allowed to attend our community colleges and universities at the in-state tuition rate. They want the same level of affordability that their citizen-peers get as they further their education.

It's a relatively modest request with a potential for a big return — an inclusive initiative that helps us build a better-educated workforce for the future.

Maybe some day, Republicans and Democrats will come together and straighten out the nation's immigration mess. In the meantime, these kids deserve a decent society's support, especially if they declare their intent to become citizens and their parents file tax returns, as the Dream Act requires. It's in our long-term economic interest to make these young people feel welcome and make their higher education affordable.

Veterans, especially those who served in the all-volunteer Iraq-Afghanistan era, deserve our support, too, and even more so. Many of them have had a tough time finding jobs; a college degree will increase their chances of not only landing a job, but one that pays at least a middle-class wage.

So, if you oppose the Dream Act because of what it does for the undocumented immigrant, you might have to bite the bullet because of what it does for the honorably discharged veteran. The rest of us have it easy — it's a two-fer.

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