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'Illegal' immigrants and the next economy

Today in Boca Raton, a South Florida woman named Ann Van Wagner pays a debt to an illegal immigrant who saved her life. Ms. Van Wagner has organized a fundraiser at a Boca bowling alley — "Bowling For Brains" — to support the Johns Hopkins Brain Tumor Stem Cell Laboratory headed by Dr. Alfredo Quiñones-Hinojosa.

"Dr. Q" removed a tumor from Ms. Van Wagner's brain at Hopkins in January 2010. She's made a full recovery and has been supporting his research ever since.

Ms. Van Wagner's hero is perhaps the nation's leading illegal-turned-incredible citizen, a native Mexican who hopped a border fence in 1987, worked in the vegetable fields of the San Joaquin Valley and eventually ended up at Harvard Medical School, where he graduated cum laude. He's now an associate professor of neurosurgery and oncology, neuroscience and molecular medicine at Hopkins. Dr. Quiñones-Hinojosa also serves as the director of the Brain Tumor Surgery Program and performs more than 200 brain operations a year.

Pretty good for a one-time fence hopper, a Mexican teenager who saw little hope in his homeland and who came to the U.S. for the opportunities it promised. Our country is wealthier for his "illegal" act.

In fact, even Americans who despise illegal aliens and who want to see them all deported could potentially benefit from Dr. Q's illegal entry: They might need his gifted hands in an operating room some day or benefit from his research on brain cancer.

That would include, of course, all those Marylanders who decry and vow to repeal a discount on college tuition to young people who are following in Dr. Q's footsteps.

The so-called Dream Act, signed into law by the governor last week, provides the in-state college tuition rate to undocumented immigrants who graduate from Maryland high schools, who agree to take courses at a community college for a couple of years (an unfortunate condition imposed by the General Assembly), and whose families can demonstrate that they've paid state taxes for five years.

Most of these kids grew up in Maryland; they've become Americanized even if they aren't yet citizens. They want to attend our four-year institutions. Giving them the same break their high school classmates get seems wholly fair — and a good investment for the state.

Of course, having failed to stop the Dream Act in the General Assembly, some of its members are stoking up their old-world steam engine for the repeal effort. Pat McDonough is one of the leaders, a Republican state delegate representing Baltimore and Harford counties who lives and breathes the illegal immigrant stuff. (The Washington Post noted recently that the General Assembly has passed only two of the more than 50 bills Mr. McDonough has introduced since being elected in 2002.)

The worst things about this obsession with "illegals" are its short-sightedness and the cheap complaint that we're giving away the store and getting nothing in return. In fact, millions of undocumented workers contribute to the economy in some way, and across the country they've paid billions in taxes. (The chief actuary of the Social Security Administration estimates that by 2007, the SSA trust fund had received a net benefit of $120 billion — and perhaps as much as $240 billion — from undocumented workers.)

If anything, our policies should encourage more skilled immigrants to come to the United States — and we should encourage the ones already here, legal or illegal, to get a sound education and help shape the next economy.

Denying a tuition break to Maryland-resident students because their parents broke a law to raise their families in the United States is not only petty and unfair; it makes a problem out of an opportunity. There are plenty of young, hard-working, earnest and law-abiding "illegals" coming out of our high schools. They won't all end up being brain surgeons, but who knows what other potential lies within any number of them? Given the need for a highly educated and creative workforce in the next economy, why would we want to do anything but support them, as we do their native-born peers?

We should help them with their education, then challenge them to pay back the favor by committing to citizenship and to making their new country stronger.

Listen to Dan Rodricks on Midday, weekdays on WYPR, noon to 2 pm. His column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. His email is

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