The ironies of President Donald Trump’s dig at Maryland Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ben Jealous’ promise to provide free community college for undocumented immigrants are thick. Mr. Jealous was over the moon at being singled out for criticism by a president whose disapproval ratings in Maryland rival those of sea lice. Gov. Larry Hogan, the Republican incumbent who was probably wondering what he could do to get criticized by the president, was quick to point out that he has already signed legislation that would provide free community college tuition to some undocumented immigrants, and that he wants to go further and let them transfer to a four-year school for free, too.
As a political issue, this one works for all parties involved. Mr. Trump got a big reaction from the crowd at a campaign rally in Montana for his derisive reference to Mr. Jealous’ proposal, which the president threw in amid bromides about building a wall, eliminating crime and protecting Americans’ benefits. He skipped quickly from Mr. Jealous to taking some shots at the Democrat running for governor in Florida, Andrew Gillum, for supposedly wanting to abolish the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. Anti-immigrant rhetoric plays great with his base.
Mr. Jealous is happy to talk about his support for immigrants, documented or otherwise, as a means of reminding the large, anti-Trump majority in Maryland that he is the polar opposite of the president. Even if Mr. Trump wasn’t a factor, the stance would make sense. As a leader in Maryland’s referendum in support of allowing undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition under some circumstances six years ago, Mr. Jealous knows how the issue plays here — that measure passed 59 percent to 41 percent.
And Mr. Hogan, who shows no signs so far of losing significant support from the Republican base, doesn’t mind another opportunity to distance himself from President Trump. With this issue, he can simultaneously show himself to be far more pro-immigrant than the Republican president and try to undercut his Democratic opponent on a key policy initiative. Not only did he sign legislation Democratic lawmakers passed this year on party-line votes to provide free community college to thousands of students state-wide, regardless of immigration status, but he has proposed an expansion of the program to cover tuition at four-year colleges if participating students transfer to a state institution. His strategy in this election seems to rest on making sure voters who usually support Democrats see no burning reason to abandon him, so this issue works for him, too.
But how much should voters actually care? Beyond the symbolism and the statement that Messrs. Trump, Jealous and Hogan are making about their values, this question, as a practical matter, is not of tremendous import for the vast majority of Marylanders. The fiscal analysis of this year’s community college legislation includes no estimate of how many people might take advantage of the free-tuition offer, much less how many of them might be undocumented immigrants. But Maryland’s experience with in-state tuition should offer some guide. In 2017, when lawmakers considered loosening some of the DREAM Act eligibility requirements, the Department of Legislative Services reported that about 60 students at four-year institutions were taking advantage of the program, and 450 at community colleges. That’s 450 out of approximately 125,000 enrolled students, or about 0.4 percent. Even if, as Mr. Jealous predicts, his plan would attract about 750 participants, that would still amount to a rounding error for the overall program.
Mr. Trump would have voters believe that offering policies like free tuition to undocumented immigrants will act as a magnet to bring their parents flocking here, but at least so far, the statistics in Maryland don’t seem to bear that out. The dangers of the opposite approach, however, are paramount. Mr. Trump’s hard-line immigration policy holds that we should discourage undocumented immigration by doing everything possible to make life difficult for those who come here illegally, and the logical extension of that thinking played out in tragic fashion on the border this spring and summer as immigration agents separated children from their parents with little means of contact between them or no real plans for reunification.
Time will tell whether Mr. Jealous’ efforts to gain traction (and fundraising success) in this race will be helped by his efforts to highlight Mr. Trump’s Montana shout-out. But Marylanders can at least be proud that our state is disproving the president’s alarmist rhetoric and displaying a bipartisan consensus on this needlessly divisive issue.
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