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Published in Print: June 20, 2001, as States Eye New College Rules For Immigrants

States Eye New College Rules For Immigrants

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Lawmakers in at least two states and the U.S. Congress are trying to make it easier for high school students who are undocumented immigrants to attend college.

Last month, Texas legislators mustered near-unanimous support for a bill to allow high school graduates who are not legal residents, but who have lived in the United States for at least three years, to pay in-state tuition at Texas colleges and universities.

The California Assembly, the legislature's lower house, passed a similar bill last month. Meanwhile, a bipartisan bill has been introduced in Congress that would give legal status to thousands of immigrant high school and college students.

Federal law requires public elementary and high schools to accept students regardless of residency status. But, while public colleges and universities accept students who are not legal residents, federal laws bar them from receiving federal aid and, for the most part, in- state tuition. ("Talented, But Not Legal," May 31, 2000.)

If Gov. Rick Perry signed the Texas tuition bill into law by the midnight June 17 deadline, his state would become the first to give the lower tuition rates to undocumented immigrant students. The Republican governor has made higher education a priority.

"I think this dovetails nicely with his proposals to raise college enrollment and cut back red tape on access to higher education," said Texas state Rep. Richard Noriega, the Democrat who sponsored the bill. "This is a match made in heaven."

Others say that relaxing tuition for students not legally in the Unites States is bad policy.

"You're setting a standard where you treat illegal-alien children better than citizen children," said David Ray, the associate director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, an immigration-watchdog group based in Washington. "If you have one seat left, are you going to look at a taxpaying American parent and say, 'That seat is going to a student who is not a legal resident?'"

Supporters of the tuition breaks in Texas have been working for several years to change state law.

David Johnston, a high school English teacher in Houston, helped form the advocacy group Coalition of Higher Education for Immigrant Students in 1998 to push the issue.

"There are so many bright students who are unable to attend higher studies because they lack proper papers and the money to continue," he said.

In recent years, the Dallas and Houston community college systems began offering in-state rates to local high school graduates, regardless of their immigration status.

A federal immigration law enacted in 1998 prohibited undocumented aliens from receiving a "postsecondary education benefit," such as lower tuition, that doesn't go to all U.S. citizens. But policy guidelines were never drawn up for the law, thus leaving it open to interpretation for higher education institutions.

"These students were very depressed before, thinking it was the end for them," Mr. Johnston said of the undocumented students in Dallas and Houston. "Now, the doors are open."

The issue goes beyond emotions. Texas, like many states, faces shortages of teachers, nurses, and other skilled workers. It no longer makes sense, some say, to derail the education of talented students who have been in Texas for several years, or most of their lives, because of their residency status.

"State law, coupled with citizenship status, creates an artificial barrier to higher education, which is cost," Mr. Noriega said. In-state tuition at the University of Texas at Austin is $1,800 per semester, compared with about $5,000 for nonresidents.

Gov. Perry's signature on the Texas measure could put pressure on his Democratic counterpart in California to do the same.

Gov. Gray Davis vetoed such a bill last year, arguing it could run afoul of federal law. But backers of a new bill passed by the California Assembly, which resembles the measure in Texas, say they have legal opinions to the contrary.

Assemblyman Marco Firebaugh, the Democratic sponsor of the bill, sees another reason for Gov. Davis to be more willing to sign the measure this time around. "The political environment in California has changed, and the governor would want to be responsible to core Democratic constituents, which Latinos are," he said. "This also reaches to the core of civil rights of Latinos in this state."

That measure is expected to go before the Senate education panel this month.

Federal Bill

Similar arguments could begin echoing through Congress later this year when lawmakers take up the proposed Student Adjustment Act of 2001.

Introduced late last month, the bill would grant new legal status to students beginning in the 7th grade and continuing to 21 years of age, as long as they were in school or pursuing college admission. The bill also would allow states to decide, without federal interference, who is considered a resident for in-state tuition.

No date has been set for a hearing on the measure.

The bill's original sponsor, U.S. Rep. Howard L. Berman, D-Calif., said the measure was likely to get backing from the business sector as well as from the higher education community.

"This is a priority, and we are going to push it," Mr. Berman said. "It's not in the country's best interest to let these people out of higher education and not realizing their potential."

Vol. 20, Issue 41, Page 18

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