Equity & Diversity

States Debate In-State Tuition For Undocumented Students

By Rhea R. Borja — April 16, 2003 5 min read
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As college tuition rates march upward, lawmakers in about a dozen states are divided over measures that would make it easier for undocumented immigrant students to qualify for in-state tuition rates.

After much debate, the Maryland legislature approved such a bill last week, and legislators in Oregon, Illinois, and Hawaii, among others, are now debating similar—and equally controversial—legislation.

Virginia lawmakers, meanwhile, have gone in the opposite direction from that of their colleagues in neighboring Maryland. A measure passed by the Virginia legislature would require undocumented students to pay out-of-state tuition.

Under the Oregon proposal—which follows similar laws in place in California, Texas, and Utah— illegal-immigrant students would qualify for in-state tuition if they had attended high school in Oregon for at least three consecutive years, graduated from an Oregon high school, and were seeking U.S. citizenship or legal residency.

“This is about fairness, nothing more, nothing less,” said Democratic Sen. Peter Courtney, who is sponsoring Senate Bill 10, the Oregon legislation. “Young people shouldn’t be held liable for the transgressions of their parents.”

The savings for those students, many of whom came to the United States at a young age and know no other home than this country, would be considerable. This coming fall, in-state tuition at the University of Oregon will cost $4,875. However, out-of-state tuition is $16,416—almost $12,000 more.

Attempts to make college more affordable to illegal immigrants is a trend, some observers say. (“Talented, But Not Legal,” May 31, 2000.)

More states, realizing that most of the 8.5 million undocumented immigrants in the United States are in the country to stay, are trying to help undocumented immigrants become productive, revenue-producing members of society, said Carl Krueger, a policy analyst with the Education Commission of the States, a Denver-based policy group.

“A lot of states see it in their best interests to educate these people,” he said. "[This legislation] allows these students to live productive lives and give back benefits to the state.”

Many state leaders don’t share that view, though.

Despite the flurry of such proposals introduced in as many as 20 states since 2001, most bills don’t make it beyond initial debates, Mr. Krueger said. In a time of falling revenue, budget cuts, and concerns over war and terrorism, there often have been groundswells against such bills.

State funding for higher education, in fact, has been cut in many states—a situation that is not conducive to extending in-state benefits to undocumented immigrants. Oregon’s public colleges and universities suffered an 11 percent cut this year, for example, while higher education funding was cut 5 percent in Virginia.

“Opposition is so strong that many of [the bills] don’t go through,” Mr. Krueger said.

Legislators in Nebraska and Washington state, recently killed such legislation. A similar bill in Wisconsin was approved by the legislature, only to be vetoed by Gov. James E. Doyle, a Democrat. The Maryland bill also faces a possible veto by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican.

And while the Oregon bill sailed through the Senate last month, many legislators in the House adamantly oppose it. “Your heart says vote ‘yes,’ but your head says vote ‘no,’” said Sen. Frank Morse, a Republican, one of eight Oregon legislators who voted against SB10.

No Breaks in Virginia

Virginia went one big step further. The legislature crafted—and passed overwhelmingly earlier this year—a bill that states the opposite: Undocumented immigrants must pay out-of-state tuition, which is three to four times more than in-state tuition.

More recently, the Virginia House of Delegates soundly defeated, by a 73-26 vote, an amendment sought by Democratic Gov. Mark Warner that would have allowed some undocumented students to qualify for in-state tuition.

“I don’t think it’s too much to ask someone to follow the laws of our society before they take advantage of what our society has to offer,” said state Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore, who urged legislators to reject the governor’s amendment.

Mr. Kilgore and others who oppose allowing illegal immigrants to pay in-state college tuition argue that states such as California, Texas, and Utah, are violating federal law.

That law is the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, which says that an illegal immigrant can’t be eligible for in-state tuition unless all American citizens or legal residents, regardless of which state they live in, are eligible for in-state tuition.

In response, U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican, sponsored what he calls the DREAM Act (for Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) last year. That proposal would repeal the federal provision that seeks to bar states from giving in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants.

“In other words, it takes immigration—a federal issue—out of a state-based decision,” Sen. Hatch said before the Senate Judiciary Committee last summer. The DREAM Act is now under consideration in Congress.

Mr. Kilgore and other critics also oppose the state legislation because they say such proposals are unfair to military families. If students from out-of-state military families aren’t eligible for in-state tuition, the Virginia attorney general asks, why should students who aren’t in the United States legally be eligible?

But Mr. Kilgore’s argument is a “red herring,” said Ellen Qualls, the press secretary for Gov. Warner. That’s because military families can choose their state of residency, and if they choose Virginia, they can qualify immediately for in-state rates.

Ms. Qualls also alluded to an anti-immigrant attitude in the legislature in the wake of the September 2001 terrorist attacks. “In the aftermath of 9/11,” she said, “there’s been an emotional feeling of ‘There are invaders in our midst.’ ”

“The governor feels that as a nation of immigrants,” she continued, “we shouldn’t have some reflexive response to September 11 that would punish people who’ve come to this country and are trying to play by the rules.”

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