A Montgomery County, Maryland, high school principal and close friend told me in March of the number of top graduating seniors at her school who were undocumented and thus being denied access to many colleges nationally and required to pay out-of-state tuition at public universities in the state they and their parents called home. The tuition difference was $10,000 to $16,000, making college unaffordable for most. They had worked so hard academically and dreamed of giving their talents back to Maryland.
Because of NAFSA’s longtime national advocacy efforts, I was familiar with the proposed federal solution to this problem known as the DREAM Act – a bill championed by Illinois Senator Dick Durbin that would give eligible undocumented students who were raised in the United States and educated in our schools the opportunity to attend college, serve in the military, and begin the long process of legalizing their immigration status. While this legislation has had widespread bipartisan support over the years, it has not yet been passed by Congress, causing states like Maryland to take up the issue. Maryland’s political leaders rightly understood that while immigration matters must be dealt with at the federal level, what Maryland could and should do is to offer in-state tuition to these talented students.
My friend asked me to rally support for the Maryland Dream Act, 11 years in the making and finally very close to passage in the State legislature. It finally did pass, only a few hours before the state legislative session closed, and after a major constituent push that afternoon to overcome a last-minute effort to defeat the bill. Governor O'Malley, a vocal supporter of the bill, signed the Maryland Dream Act on May 10, making Maryland the 12th state to pass such a law. Texas was the first.
My friend's stories of these students personalized for me the importance of this legislation. I became part of a campaign to value the skills of high school graduates who have demonstrated potential for further academic achievement, those who have lived most of their lives in Maryland, and deserve a chance.
As the Washington Post said in an editorial on May 12, it was a fair, tough, and sensible bill. It requires 5 years of family tax returns, 60 hours of community college course work, and for men, registration for the draft. It was expected to cost the state only $3.5 million by 2016.
Unfortunately, our collective euphoria was short-lived. The opposition has already acquired more than the 58,000 signatures they needed (3% of Maryland voters from the last gubernatorial election) to force a referendum on the legislation in November.
So we begin again, and maybe will have to again after that. But my belief in giving these talented high school students a better chance requires me to keep pushing, and pushing.
Jody K. Olsen, PhD, is a visiting professor at the University of Maryland School of Social Work and serves on NAFSA’s Board of Directors. From January-August 2009, she served as acting director of the Peace Corps, having been appointed as deputy director by President George W. Bush in 2002. Olsen got her start in the Peace Corps as a volunteer in Tunisia from 1966-1968. To learn more about NAFSA’s efforts in supporting the federal version of the DREAM Act, visit the “Reaching for a DREAM” campaign page on www.ConnectingOurWorld.org. For more on state-level advocacy, view this page on the NAFSA website.