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Among my colleagues at the University of Georgia is a small but hardy band of altruists who can’t stand the idea that young people are being denied the opportunity to get a college degree for the dumbest of reasons. So, according to a report in the Chronicle of Higher Education, those energetic faculty members formed a secret school, Freedom University; it offers instruction to undocumented young people who are legally barred from attending several of the best schools in the state they call home.

Like a handful of other states, Georgia has cracked down on undocumented immigrants who want to get a college degree. Not only are they barred from top colleges like UGA, but they are also required to pay the much higher out-of-state tuition rates at any state school that might accept them. Given the spiraling costs of college, that’s a hurdle most illegal immigrants can’t overcome. (Alabama and South Carolina go further, barring them from public colleges, period.)

Freedom’s instructors have worked hard to find their students places at colleges that will accept them — offering, among other things, SAT prep and help with college entrance essays. Some of the students have already enrolled at top schools such as Syracuse University, according to the Chronicle.

I wholeheartedly applaud those efforts, but they shouldn’t be necessary. Given the structural deficits in the nation’s economy, few pieces of public policy are dumber than those that restrict college opportunities for promising young people. In January, the new Congress should immediately take up comprehensive immigration reform.

The students at Freedom University are representative of a cohort of undocumented young adults who are Americans in every way but one — legal papers. They speak English; they listen to Nicki Minaj and Taylor Swift; they watch not only soccer but also college football. They’ve spent most of their lives in this country and share the aspirations of their friends born on this soil. We ought to be eager to hand them the full rights — and responsibilities — of citizenship.

They are assets to this country. Experts have long noted that the American economy needs more highly skilled workers — people with degrees beyond high school. Since the United States can’t compete with countries such as Bangladesh that specialize in low-skilled and low-paid labor, our future growth depends on expanding our skills. It’s self-defeating to erect barriers in front of young people who could become highly educated workers.

Further, the immigrants who have surged into this country over the last couple of decades — whether they entered with papers or not — have helped the United States maintain a relatively youthful population. Even though birth rates dropped a bit with the economic downturn, the U.S. has still maintained a birth rate higher than that of many advanced democracies. That’s important.

We need workers — not just retirees. Immigrants have helped the country avoid the demographic collapse facing industrialized nations from Greece to Japan.

For several years, though, the Republican Party, fearful of the reaction of its nativist base, has resisted any sort of immigration reform. President Obama couldn’t get GOP support for a modest measure, the DREAM Act, which would have provided a path to citizenship for young people like those attending Freedom University. (Earlier this year, Obama enacted a decree granting temporary legal status to about a million young illegal immigrants.)

You may also recall that, during the GOP presidential primaries, Texas Gov. Rick Perry was booed for strongly endorsing his state’s decision to allow undocumented students to pay in-state tuition at Texas colleges. Mitt Romney, who wanted illegal immigrants to “self-deport,” was among those who denounced Perry.

But since Obama won re-election with a hefty assist from Latino voters, several GOP leaders have noted that the party’s hostility to immigration reform is a burden. And their constituents may be ready to abandon that stance, too.

A November exit poll showed that 65 percent of voters favor giving illegal immigrants a shot at legal status; while 79 percent of Democrats support the idea, 51 percent of Republicans do as well.

Congress should pass comprehensive immigration reform. It’s time to put Freedom University out of business.

(Cynthia Tucker, winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a visiting professor at the University of Georgia. She can be reached at cynthia@cynthiatucker.com.)

Photo credit: AP/Charles Dharapak

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