Last night, young people celebrated outside the Maryland Senate chamber as the Senate passed legislation (27-20) that would extend in-state tuition to undocumented immigrant students at the state’s public colleges. The measure will remove a critical barrier for undocumented children who have grown up in Maryland and aspire to a college degree but often are deterred by out-of-state tuition rates.

Around the country, more than two dozen states are currently considering their own bills regarding access to a higher education for undocumented students—and the sentiments are high on both sides of the aisle. Once the Maryland bill is signed into law, the state will join ten others that have passed similar laws. California was the first state to adopt such a policy in 2001, with Texas following shortly after. Over the past ten years, Illinois, Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, Utah, and Washington have followed suit. Legislators in these states have come to realize the moral and economic imperative of ensuring that all children in their state, regardless of immigration status, are able to achieve their full potential.

So why is it common-sense policy to make in-state tuition accessible to undocumented students? Well, for one thing, it makes sense for our economy. The 1982 Plyler v. Doe ruling ensures that undocumented children have access to a public K-12 education, as a means to prevent the creation of a permanent “underclass.” However, this statute does not apply to higher education. For many undocumented students, the costs of higher education are simply out of reach, especially if they are subject to out-of-state rates. While college costs are often a challenge for all low-income families, undocumented students are unable to rely on the state and federal aid available to low-income U.S. citizen and legal immigrant students. As a result, an estimated 65,000 undocumented youth graduate from U.S. high schools every year, and only about 5-10 percent go to college. After already making an investment in their education, it is simply illogical that the system then acts to prevent these students from putting their talent to use.

While several new states take on their own versions of in-state tuition legislation, some states are considering more restrictive bills, including those that would altogether ban undocumented students from even enrolling in public colleges and universities. A new brief released today by the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AASCU) highlights state-level efforts around the country. In recent years, bills banning undocumented students from enrolling in public institutions were passed in South Carolina and Alabama, and at least five other states are considering similar measures this year.

The urgency for a federal solution to the plight of undocumented students living in the United States couldn’t be clearer. Congress’ failure to take up comprehensive immigration reform or to pass the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act continues to force states to grapple with these difficult challenges. Those who believe that granting young people improved access to a higher education is in some way “rewarding illegal behavior” are overlooking an important fact: these are young people who were brought to the U.S. as children through no choice of their own. What makes more sense then, to punish youth for the actions of their parents or to reward their ambition to better themselves through education?

Last night’s victory for Maryland’s young people is true cause for celebration. It should also serve as reminder to Congress and the Administration that our country is in desperate need of federal solutions to mend our broken immigration system. The future of hundreds of thousands of children and youth—as well as our country as a whole—depends on it.

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