A recent WBZ Radio poll showed voters opposing in-state college tuition for undocumented students by a 9-1 margin. The e-mail I received from an adjunct faculty member made me feel good about being among the 10 percent who support the concept.
In her message she reported that a former student had met me "as you were both giving testimony in support of Senate Bill 1175. He was quite impressed with you and went as far as to e-mail me about the day and his meeting you. I just wanted to let you know how important it is that you took this stand, not just for our students but for the community and our place in it! I am even more proud to work for NSCC then I was before!"
What is it about the defenseless children of undocumented parents that draws such outrage from so many? Do people picture them as outlaws swimming a border river to overthrow our country?
The 40 or so students I know about who apply to North Shore Community College only to be turned away by the triple tuition they are required to pay as non-residents are otherwise exemplary people. Senate Bill 1175 would require them to have lived in this country for at least three years, graduated from high school or received a GED, and provide documented proof through an application or affidavit that they have or will apply for citizenship. Among the 40 are members of the National Honor Society, captains of local sports teams and top students in their graduating high school classes who, but for this barrier, are destined to become model citizens and professionals.
They do not displace "real" residents, as we can accommodate the additional students. They do not cost us anything. On the contrary, they bring in additional net revenue that we can certainly use in these times. They would enrich the culture of our college and contribute to the diverse tapestry that is the hallmark of our college and community colleges across the country.
On Nov. 17, 2009, Gov. Deval Patrick released the New Americans Agenda, a set of 131 policy recommendations focused on immigration issues. The report was prepared by the Governor's Advisory Council for Refugees and Immigrants in collaboration with MIRA (Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition) and the Office for Refugees and Immigrants. The goal of the recommendations is to "integrate the commonwealth's immigrants and refugees more fully into the civic and economic life of Massachusetts."
The first objective under postsecondary education recommends "in-state rates for state colleges and universities for all immigrant residents."
The Massachusetts Commonwealth Compact is composed of leaders from all private and public sectors and has as its goal: "To establish Massachusetts as a uniquely inclusive, honest and supportive community of — and for — diverse people. To acknowledge our mixed history in this effort, and to face squarely the challenges that still need to be overcome, understanding that the rich promise of the region's growing diversity must be tapped fully if Boston and Massachusetts are to achieve their economic, civic and social potential."
It includes among its objectives making in-state tuition available to undocumented, but otherwise qualified, students.
President Obama in his recent State of the Union address rightly asserted that "in this economy, a high school diploma no longer guarantees a good job. That's why I urge the Senate to follow the House and pass a bill that will revitalize our community colleges, which are a career pathway to the children of so many working families."
In the past, Obama has supported granting in-state tuition to undocumented students. His home state of Illinois has such a law, as do nine others, including Texas, New York and California.
A Boston Indicators report recognized our dependence on immigrants for our future workforce. But with limited education, high-achieving immigrant youths become lost in low-paying, low-skilled jobs. The challenge is for public higher education (and especially community colleges) to fuel the growth of the regional economy with educated employees, while maintaining access and affordable tuition.
Why is it smart to deny a good job to people who require it to become the citizens we demand they be?
Meet Andao, who escaped the camps of Cambodia to come to Massachusetts. With great struggles, the financial help of a loving and committed sponsor and private scholarships, she attended North Shore, continued her education at Smith College, graduated with a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University in biochemistry and is currently at Dartmouth Medical School. Her potential for contributing to society and her community is boundless.
Meet Andres, who hopes to attend North Shore Community College. "I don't want to miss the chance of going on with my studies and my development as a good and an educated person," he tells me.
Latinos are the largest minority group at the college. Without the help of the proposed legislation, we might lose Andres and the promise of a future scientist, teacher, doctor or legislator.
How can we pour our sympathy and money into Haiti for the children trapped in the rubble there, but demonize those Haitian children whose parents arrived in this country undocumented?
Given the red-meat talk shows and strong anti-immigrant sentiment rife among some groups, I understand the uncommon courage it takes for a lawmaker to support this legislation. What I don't understand is how otherwise reasonable, caring people can turn this issue into a law-and-order matter instead of the educational challenge it is.
I know we won't win the argument. But can we at least tone down the level of rancor that tends to characterize public discourse on this issue and set an example of civility all residents can emulate?
Wayne Burton is president of North Shore Community College, which has campuses in Danvers, Beverly and Lynn.