Shining light into society's shadows

The Baltimore Sun

Former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. must be wondering why current Gov. Martin O'Malley couldn't have made that gaffe last week when it would have benefited Ehrlich the most: during the gubernatorial campaign.

Oh, you must have read about it. O'Malley was expressing his support of proposed legislation that would permit illegal immigrants to pay what legal residents of Maryland pay for tuition at state colleges and universities. The idea is controversial, but O'Malley has said he will sign the bill into law if the legislature passes it.

And in so saying, he committed what might hold up as the gaffe of the year, if not the entire decade.

"We are not a people or a country," the governor piously intoned, "that has ever willfully chosen to condemn people to live in the shadows of our society."

Oh really?

I call the good governor's attention to the practices known as slavery and Jim Crow. If these quite willful actions, chosen by the majority of people in virtually all the states at one time or another, didn't condemn black people to "live in the shadows of our society," then what precisely did they do?

The theme of Ralph Ellison's novel Invisible Man is about black folks condemned to live in those shadows. James W. Loewen's Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism is a nonfiction work about the (willful) laws and tactics used to keep black Americans in the shadows. Perhaps the guv can give them a good read while I try to explain what he should have said about in-state tuition payments for illegal immigrants.

America clearly isn't a country that has "never willfully chosen to condemn people to live in the shadows of our society." But we're a country that knows the price we pay for having done it to a group of people for so long. The history and legacy of slavery and Jim Crow continue to haunt us. (Surely the governor remembers the legislature's 2007 resolution calling for an apology for slavery that he heartily endorsed.)

The riots in America's ghettos of the 1960s led to the Kerner Commission report that said the country was moving toward two societies, one black and one white. That was the price we paid for forcing black Americans to live in the shadows. We don't want, 20 to 30 years from now, to have to issue another commission report saying the country is moving toward two societies, one native-born and the other of illegal immigrants who are marginalized.

That's the argument O'Malley should have made in support of illegal immigrants being allowed to pay in-state tuition rates. At the same time, the governor could have offered a bit of empathy to those who don't get all warm and fuzzy when they hear the idea. These people have valid points, too.

Some of them were expressed by an e-mailer who sent the following:

"How can we rationally justify charging a legal, out-of-state student more tuition than an illegal resident? Maybe kids can just move here and declare themselves illegal Pennsylvania immigrants to get the lower tuition. I am not anti-immigration. I would be OK with a plan to let illegal immigrants pay the (relatively very low) in-state tuition for classes at the community colleges, which do not turn away as many applicants. Let them work toward their AA degrees while they work toward their residency and citizenship.

"If, after receiving their AA degrees, they can demonstrate they have made progress toward legal residency and citizenship, then let them attend one of the four-year universities. In other words, show a commitment commensurate with the privilege. I hardly think this would be a course 'to condemn people to live in the shadows of our society.' Shoot, we have people that were born here that are getting less opportunity."

The debate about in-state tuition for illegal immigrants is so bitter and rancorous that the e-mailer didn't want to give his name. That would have left me free to claim his idea for letting illegal immigrants pay in-state rates at community colleges while they work for residency and citizenship as my own. But the idea smacks of so much common sense and clear, logical thinking that readers would have detected immediately it could never have come from me.

It sounds like a plan everyone should be able to live with. Community colleges are broad-access institutions with low tuitions. Quiet as it's kept, community colleges provide some darned fine education. What would be wrong with letting illegal immigrants pay in-state tuition rates at community colleges with the condition that those immigrants work toward residency and citizenship?

In other words, we would be requiring illegal immigrants to at least make a pretense of having some respect for America's immigration laws.

The illegal immigrants who take such a deal would be getting a better break from the state and the good governor than those loiterers who had to spend double-digit hours in Central Booking under O'Malley's arrest policies when he was mayor of Baltimore.

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