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Two-year schools invest in immigrants, communities

ROCKVILLE, MD. — Fidelis Militante immigrated to America 10 years ago from the Philippines. When she was still in high school, she qualified as a nursing assistant and volunteered at retirement homes here in the Washington, D.C., suburbs.

Last week, she earned a two-year degree from Montgomery College with a perfect 4.0 average, but she's just getting started. Fidelis has big dreams: first to become a registered nurse, then a doctor.

We were privileged to give the graduation address at Montgomery College, and if you've ever doubted the enormous contributions immigrants make to this country, that ceremony would have softened up even the most hard-hearted skeptic. Or should have.

About 950 graduates walked across the stage and at least one-third of them were born outside this country. The colorful flags of their homelands adorned the tent covering the school's athletic field. In fact, the valedictorians from all three of the college's campuses were immigrants.

In addition to Fidelis, there was Pavanjot Singh Guraya, a Sikh from Great Britain headed for Georgetown University and a career in business consulting. And Antony Musembi, who grew up in Kenya, returned to college after a 20-year absence and wants to start a mentorship program for disadvantaged youth.

This time of year, news stories focus on the commencement ceremonies addressed by four-star celebrities at four-year universities. But the vital role played by two-year community colleges often gets overlooked. It's here where many newcomers find the capacity, the confidence and the connections to become fully functioning, highly contributing Americans.

These colleges don't just serve immigrants, however. Many of the graduates had come back to school mid-career, often to join apprenticeship programs sponsored by local businesses and trade unions. One honors graduate was Leroy Friend, who spent 18 years working in the coal mines of West Virginia before learning to become a heating and air-conditioning technician.

One story embodies the spirit of Montgomery College. Student Julian Mitsuo Sadur has a complex ethnic heritage: Russian-Jewish, African-American and Japanese. But as an outfielder on the college baseball team, he modeled himself on the great Japanese player Ichiro Suzuki.

"I try to remain calm," Julian said, "laying back" and letting the game come to him. He said his Latino teammates brought "a different swagger" to the game, even throwing in "some Spanish dance moves" when they made a good play.

Here's a team playing the same game, wearing the same name on their jerseys. Yet each member brings his own style, his own national flair, to the ballfield. That's not just a metaphor about community colleges. It reflects an important dimension of the larger immigrant experience.

A fair number of the graduates we spoke to are undocumented, and many share the experience of Karina Velasco, who crossed the border illegally from Mexico at age 14. Now 25, she graduated from Montgomery College and is completing a degree in social work at the University of Maryland's Baltimore campus.

Karina is temporarily protected from deportation by an executive order signed by President Obama in 2012, but for many years she was legally vulnerable, and her parents still are.

"One night I woke with a nightmare," she recalls. "My mom and dad were being deported: I was crying and crying and called my mother. I was like, 'What am I going to do with my brother here by myself? Who am I going to turn to?'"

Those emotional scars dictated her professional course: She wants to specialize in the particular stresses and traumas plaguing illegal immigrants.

The vibrant world of Montgomery College is presided over by DeRionne Pollard, a one-person symbol of diversity: a gay black woman raising an 8-year-old son with her wife, Robyn Jones.

Pollard's mother died when she was 4, and she was raised by a series of "sister-mothers," including the women of her church on the South Side of Chicago. When she finished eighth grade, the church awarded her a $50 bond; when she graduated high school, she received a modest college scholarship.

Those awards meant more than money: They conveyed a set of values as well. "That idea of service was ingrained," she says. "That idea that we care about you, we're invested in you as a community."

That's exactly what Montgomery College, and schools like it across the country, are doing today. They are investing in people like Fidelis Militante and Pavanjot Singh Guraya, Antony Musembi and Leroy Friend.

And they are making America a better place. Student by student. Course by course. Community by community.

Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by email at

Welcome more voices to GOP presidential debates

Order in early presidential debates is an overvalued virtue. Fox News and CNN erred in deciding that they will not impose a severe limit on the number of Republican presidential hopefuls they will allow to participate in the first two debates of the contests. These early encounters always have the whiff of nuttiness wafting about the crowded stage.

The cable news networks should have followed the Mae West rule of confronting dilemmas. “Whenever I’m caught between two evils, I take the one I’ve never tried,” declared the 20th century show business sensation. The news outlets cover wars, revolutions, and earthquakes, and their reporters on the ground never have a hair out of place. Eighteen Republicans hoping to put their case across to several million voters has flummoxed network executives.

Fox News will host the first debate of the campaign on Aug. 6 in Cleveland. It’s limiting the number of participants to the top 10 in a collection of national polls. This means some interesting and accomplished hopefuls are going to be left out, cheating the candidates and, worse, the engaged public.

Perhaps they will consider a modest proposal. Divide the candidates into three panels — assigned at random — and give each panel 30 minutes. No opening or closing statements. Each panel will have a different interlocutor from Fox. After the final panel, bring them all together for some sort of lightning round of questions hosted by podcast sensation Adam Carolla. He’s an electric — some might say rowdy — presence.

Carolla is a libertarian leaning Republican who has built an audience of new media listeners, many of whom might be inclined to watch a presidential primary debate. Carolla would expand the audience. That, we are told over and over, is what Republican candidates and party poobahs yearn to do.

Parties do not expand by excluding. Let a hundred voices be heard in August. The crowded stage can shape. One of Ronald Reagan’s most famous stage performances came at a New Hampshire debate. “I paid for this microphone, Mr. Green,” the former California governor bellowed at the moderator who tried to cut off his microphone.

Reagan was to have debated rival George H.W. Bush that night in Nashua. Just the two of them. Election laws prevented a local newspaper from sponsoring an event between only two of the six candidates still in the contest. Reagan agreed to pick up the tab and figured that allowed him to make some of the rules.

The quote entered political history as soon as the crowd stopped cheering that night. What’s faded is the photo of four candidates Reagan invited standing behind a flummoxed and doomed Bush. Candidates at these events rarely get the chance to soar like Reagan did, but they have no trouble inventing ways to crash.

In 2011, Minnesota governor Tim “Pawk-Pawk” Pawlenty came to grief when he beat an astonishing retreat in his attempt to link Mitt Romney’s Massachusetts health care plan to Obamacare. He disowned his clever “Obamneycare” phrase on a Manchester, New Hampshire stage, along with his backbone and presidential hopes.

Hillary Clinton’s first presidential campaign first looked wobbly at an October 2007 Democratic debate in Philadelphia when no-hoper U.S. Senator Christopher Dodd had his only memorable moment of the campaign when he pinned Clinton to the truth over her varying statements on the wisdom of providing drivers licenses to illegal immigrants. Clinton’s trimming on the truth before the national audience made her look less formidable than when the evening began.

The difference between 18 candidates on the stage and 10 of them is not significant. With 10, each would get a tiny number of minutes in the spotlight, 18 provides a teeny-tiny number. It’s not worth denying former Texas governor Rick Perry the chance to immolate again over a question on one of his own policy proposals.

Former New York governor George Pataki won three statewide races in that deep blue state. He’s earned a place in the first debate. So has Rick Santorum, who ran a strong race for the 2012 nomination. Businesswoman Carly Fiorina collects admirers wherever the campaign trail leads her. Let them sing out in Cleveland on August 6th.

Kevin Rennie is a lawyer and former state legislator in Connecticut. He has been a columnist with the Hartford Courant for over a decade. He can be reached at

Presidential Politics: They're All Conservatives

As reliably as seconds ticking by on an expensive wristwatch, Republican presidential candidates loudly and vehemently identify themselves as "conservatives." We're used to hearing politicians lie, but these politicians are telling the truth for once. They ARE all conservatives.

Democrats Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, on the other hand, lie constantly about their political orientations. They label themselves "liberals" or even "progressives." But they are conservatives, too.

Since FDR's New Deal, politicians of all stripes have consistently tried to link conservatism with "smaller government." But that's not what conservatism is, or ever has been about. Conservatism is about conserving.

What does it mean to conserve something? "To keep in a safe or sound state; to save; to preserve; to protect" (Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary, 1913 edition).

What does political conservatism aim to save, preserve, protect? The existing system. As William F. Buckley, Jr. put it, political conservatism consists of "standing athwart the tracks of history yelling stop" (or, in the case of conservatism's "progressive" variant, "yelling slow down"). And that, in a nutshell, is the platform and program of every serious candidate for either major party's 2016 presidential nomination.

Sure, there are differences in emphasis. But they're not especially significant.

The candidates who call themselves conservatives are hell-bent on preserving the post-WWII garrison state by way of the single largest welfare (mostly corporate welfare) entitlement program in the federal budget: They want to maintain "defense spending" at a rate ten times that of America's nearest competitor (China). They describe proposals to even limit the growth of that budget line as "draconian cuts." When it comes to "social" programs like Social Security, they occasionally talk about minor cuts or privatization ... but only by way of "saving" the system, not abolishing it.

The conservative candidates who call themselves "progressives" come at it from the opposite direction: Their priority is saving those "social" programs. When it comes to military spending, they occasionally talk about tiny cuts, or perhaps capping increase rates, but as the Obama administration demonstrates, even those minor modifications are not hills they're prepared to make their last stands on.

If we think of politics as a 360-degree circle, the differences between modern American "conservatism" and modern American "progressivism" cover maybe five degrees, just to the right of zero. Those boundaries are, to mix metaphors, third rails. Step on them and die -- or at least, as Rand Paul has discovered, get a nasty jolt encouraging you to hurry back into safe territory.

In reality, there are only two available political directions: Society can become more libertarian, or it can become more authoritarian (and eventually totalitarian). The conservative candidates of both parties offer only the latter option.

Thomas L. Knapp is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (