May 3, 2003

In-State Tuition for Illegal Immigrants

By: Raul Damas

Since our nation’s lawmakers have no immediate interest in discussing immigration reform, those interested in the topic must content themselves with its periphery. One such area concerns whether or not high school graduates who are illegal immigrants should be eligible for in-state tuition for college education. As with most debates, this one is just as interesting for what is said as for what remains unsaid.

Beginning with the facts, tuition policies are set at the state-level in 35 states. The remaining 15 states set their policies on a by-campus basis. So far, Texas, California, Utah, New York and Washington have altered their in-state tuition policies to include students who are here illegally.

Most recently, Virginia Governor Mark Warner, a Democrat, vetoed a bill that would have overridden Virginia law and excluded illegal immigrant students from receiving in-state tuition. The Maryland legislature just sent an in-state tuition bill to Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich’s desk. This piece of legislation would be the opposite of the Virginia bill, including rather than excluding undocumented high school graduates from the in-state tuition pool.

Ehrlich wouldn’t be the first Republican Governor to stake out a major piece of turf in this battle. In 2001, Texas was the first state to overhaul its in-state tuition laws. Gov. Rick Perry, the Republican successor to Gov. George W. Bush, concurred with the state legislature that “the cost of not helping motivated students attend college is greater than the cost of helping them.”

And who are these “motivated students?” Illegal Hispanic immigrants, mostly Mexican. Sure, there are numerous other illegal immigrant groups that would benefit from receiving in-state tuition, but immigrants from Latin America far outnumber all the other groups combined.

Most importantly, Hispanics, because of the populations’ size and growth rate, are the future of this country. The success of this immigrant group, especially in terms of education, will largely determine what this country looks like in the latter half of this century and beyond.

As the Baltimore Sun’s Vibiana Andrade recently pointed out, a study by the RAND Corporation “found that making higher education accessible and affordable for all Latinos benefits the nation, the states and the students. RAND put the monetary benefits of doubling the number of bachelor’s degrees for Latinos at $13 billion.” This sum represents a combination of increased federal, state and local taxes, as well as a reduction in spending for welfare, health and law enforcement programs.

Add to that the disposable income of these students and you can double that $13 billion.

Proponents of in-state tuition for illegal immigrants also point out that it’s the compassionate thing to do. These students are among the most promising in our nation and they should not be denied the chance for an education and, ultimately, success in our nation’s workforce.

That’s all well and good, you might say, but what about the problems with giving illegal aliens in-state tuition?

FAIR, the Federation for American Immigration Reform, does a fine job of summing up the opposition argument:

States that offer in-state tuition rates to illegal aliens are actively working against the federal government’s effort to combat illegal immigration, harming citizens and legal immigrants, and opening themselves up to substantial costs and criminal liability.”

FAIR and other opponents of in-state tuition for illegal immigrants argue that such practices “necessarily deny opportunities to U.S. citizens and legal residents.” Furthermore, they argue, taxpayers should not be forced to subsidize, in whatever part, the education of illegal aliens.

These are strong, seemingly valid points, but as I mentioned earlier, there is a nagging question just below the surface here that changes the entire dynamic of the discussion: How did these students get where they are?

I’m not talking about how the students came to this country. Clearly, either they were brought here by their parents, who emigrated illegally, or they were born here and raised by parents who cam here illegally.

No, the question is, why are we doing something about this only once these students have beaten unbelievable odds and earned a high school diploma?

If opponents of illegal immigration are so fired up about this issue, why aren’t they just as exercised about the fact that for the previous 12 or so years, these students were being educated, not for reduced tuition, but for free? Someone gave these kids a diploma. Why isn’t that a factor in the debate?

For Republicans, it had better be, or else it could look to those ready to nail us for bigoted, anti-immigrant policies, that we’re willing to give illegal immigrants – who am I kidding? – illegal laborers publicly-funded education, but only to a certain point.

To say this looks bad is an understatement.

Going into hysterics because a promising illegal Mexican immigrant wants to get a break on her college tuition, while at the same time keeping mum on the public high school diploma tucked under her arm, makes it look like we’re trying to enforce an educational glass ceiling. The not-so-subtle message from opponents of the in-state tuition policy is that if you want to educate yourself enough for a minimum-wage job, that’s fine. But if you try to shoot a little higher, say a real income, then we’ve got all sorts of ethical and legal dilemmas.

I can already see the ads. And so can Terry McAuliffe.

Republican Voice (read: white male): Enough education to get yourself a minimum wage job? Sure, help yourself. Wait, now you want to go to college? But that’s illegal. You’re making a mockery of our borders and our laws!

Luckily, key Republicans, like Texas Gov. Rick Perry, are in on the joke. They realize that the benefits of increased tax revenue, as well as a reduction in welfare and crime, far outweigh whatever ethical and legal “challenges” in-state tuition for illegal immigrants presents.

But, this isn’t about politics. This is about facing facts and doing what needs to be done to keeps our nation strong. You see, nothing says “assimilated” like a college degree.