PROVIDENCE, RI – One of the storm clouds gathering over Rhode Island's economic future is our poorly educated work force. Our state ranks near the bottom of New England in the number of college educated workers that employers need for the jobs of a new century.
A huge challenge in this realm is ensuring that a new generation of immigrants has the opportunity to pursue higher education. For almost a decade now, the General Assembly has had the chance advance this agenda by approving a measure called the Dream Act.
The Dream Act would allow children brought to our state and country by illegal immigrant parents the right to attend Rhode Island's public colleges and pay in-state tuition.
Children who were brought to the United States illegally are not responsible for their status. If a child comes here at three years old speaking a foreign language and attends public schools, learns English, studies hard and qualifies for admission to college, that student would be entitled to attend a public college for the in-state tuition rate.
The difference between the in-state and out of state cost is significant. At the University of Rhode Island, for example, resident tuition and fees amount to about $12,600 a year. For students from outside the state, that tab is roughly $28,700.
A new generation of Latino lawmakers has tried since 2004 to approve a Rhode Island Dream Act. Sen. Juan Pichardo and Rep. Grace Diaz have pushed the legislation, but it has never received serious consideration. The measure has been bottled up in committee, opposed by anti-immigrant sentiment on Smith Hill.
Under the legislation, an immigrant student would have to attend a Rhode Island High School for at least three years and meet the academic qualifications for college. The Dream Act has virtues that both liberals and conservatives should cheer.
Liberals ought to value that such a law would extend the benefits of education to a new generation and open opportunity for immigrants. Conservatives should be pleased that it would advance the conservative values of personal responsibility and competition. Thirteen other states have approved this sensible measure. Even Texas Gov Rick Perry, a Tea Party favorite and liberal b te noir, has signed such a bill into law.
A Dream Act would allow these children to come out from the shadows of illegal immigration and give them hope. This measure is a hand up, not a hand out. The cost to taxpayers would be minimal because the state isn't harvesting these students' tuitions now. Our state and country is paying a big price for failing to deal realistically with illegal immigrants.
If ever a state was forged by immigration, it is Rhode Island. The ethnic ballet that has brought movements of immigrants here from England, Ireland, Italy, Portugal, Cape Verde and many other nations have given us our rich ethnic and racially blended society.
If the General Assembly refuses to Act, there is another way to get this done. The state Board of Governors for Higher Education sets the rules for in-state tuition. Maybe its time for Governor Chafee to push the education board to bypass a legislature filled with descendants of immigrants and make this happen so that yet another generation of immigrants can pursue the American Dream here in the Ocean State.
Scott MacKay's commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:45 and 8:45. You can also follow his political analysis and reporting at our `On Politics' blog at WRNI.org
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