ATLANTA -- Marco is an excellent student at Georgia Tech, one of the nation's top colleges of engineering and the sciences, with nearly a 4.0 GPA. He was valedictorian of his class at a suburban Atlanta high school and earned a perfect score on the math portion of the SAT.
Never mind those accomplishments. Letter writers were outraged because he is an illegal immigrant.
Scores of irate readers of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution don't think he deserves the perquisite of paying his college tuition at the lower rate given to Georgia residents. "The AJC can write all the heartwarming, sympathy-craving articles that you want, but I have no sympathy for any illegal alien who has to pay the high out-of-state tuition to go to one of our state colleges or universities," said one.
"You ... cannot change the fact that these kids should not even be here in the first place," said another.
Those sentiments expose the raw and visceral attitudes that have inflamed the debate over illegal immigration, the harshly punitive ideology that would brook no compromise. That "no way, Jose" dogma has fractured the Republican Party, delayed badly needed immigration reform and propelled bad public policy - including a Georgia law that has apparently forced the state's colleges to stop granting in-state tuition waivers to a few students who are not legal residents.
But no matter how loudly and vehemently some proclaim their narrow-minded views, they simply cannot be the basis for public policy. Though the diehard nativists denounce as "amnesty" any proposal that offers a path to legalization to the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants already here, the comprehensive immigration reform bill, now stalled in Congress, had offered a practical approach. It combined tough border enforcement with a path to legalization that included penalties. It was no easy forgiveness.
If we don't pass such legislation, what's the alternative?
No rational society would propose spending untold billions of dollars and imposing brutal tactics in an effort to round up millions of illegal immigrants and send them back to their native lands. Even Rep. Tom Tancredo, the Colorado Republican whose presidential bid is propelled by nativism, doesn't go that far.
And no rational society in desperate need of engineers would make it difficult for a young man such as Marco to complete his degree. Shirley Ann Jackson, president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, has written of a "quiet crisis" that stems from the nation's failure to produce enough college graduates with expertise in math, physics, chemistry, computer science and engineering. The nation's big technology firms are doing all they can to scoop up engineers and computer jocks from India, China and Malaysia.
Marco is practically American. He told a Journal-Constitution reporter that his parents moved illegally from Mexico when he was 4. They have lived in Georgia nearly a decade.
But a state law that will take effect July 1 apparently forbids granting in-state tuition to illegal immigrants, so Marco's college tuition bills are expected to increase fourfold. While some recent Georgia arrivals - U.S. citizens - have complained they have to pay out-of-state tuition, too, they could have paid lower rates in their home states. This is Marco's home.
After publishing the moving story detailing Marco's plight, the Journal-Constitution received several phone calls from readers, including Georgia Tech alumni, pledging help to ensure that Marco can pay his increased tuition. Cheers to them.
Meanwhile, how many other Marcos are being wasted?
Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun. Her e-mail is email@example.com.