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Should We ‘Punish’ Students Because of Their Parents?

By Michele McNeil — November 13, 2007 1 min read
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The issue of immigration has been particularly divisive within the Republican Party and, today, presidential candidate Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, criticized his GOP opponents for backing tuition assistance for children of illegal immigrants. Usually, what this means is states give students whose parents are illegal immigrants the lower-tuition, in-state status if they meet all other residency and academic requirements.

Specifically, Romney targeted former New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani for providing tuition breaks for illegal immigrants at City University, and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee for supporting 2005 legislation in Arkansas that would have granted in-state tuition for children of illegal immigrants.

Huckabee has continued to defend his support of such measures. Last month, he said on Jim Lehrer’s NewsHour:

“You don’t punish the child for the parents having broken the law. We don’t do that. We don’t say, ‘OK, your parents broke a law, so we’re going to punish you for it.’ I just don`t understand why anybody would think that that’s a good thing to do.”

Policymakers and judges have been wrestling with this for years, which reminds me of the important 1982 U.S. Supreme Court case Plyler vs. Doe. In that case, the justices ruled that no, it wasn’t a very good thing for Texas in the mid-1970s to deny a free public education to children of illegal immigrants.

The majority (it was a 5-4 vote) decision states that the state shouldn’t have “impose[d] its discriminatory burden on the basis of a legal characteristic over which children can have little control.”

Though this is a different situation -- and college aid isn’t guaranteed by any state’s Constitution -- the fundamental issues are similar, even decades later. So it’s still worth debating whether children of illegal immigrants should be treated differently because of choices their parents made. Should they?