Equity & Diversity

Undocumented Grads to Get Tuition Breaks From Calif. Institutions

By John Gehring — October 31, 2001 4 min read
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Undocumented immigrants who graduate from California high schools can now qualify to pay in-state college tuition, under a new state law.

Gov. Gray Davis signed the legislation on Oct. 11 to help ease the transition to college for thousands of California high school students without legal residency.

“Kids who grew up and graduated from high school here should not be priced out of a future,” Gov. Davis, a Democrat, said in a statement as he signed the bill.

Many talented students in states with high numbers of illegal immigrants, like California and Texas, have struggled to get a college education because they’ve had to pay the rates charged to out-of-state students. (“Talented, But Not Legal,” May 31, 2000.)

That is beginning to change. A bipartisan coalition in Texas pushed for new policies there, culminating in June when Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican, signed a bill to make Texas the first state to offer undocumented immigrants in-state tuition.

California is now the second state to pass legislation that makes it easier for such students to save thousands of dollars each year by paying in-state rates for higher education. A bill has been proposed in the North Carolina legislature that would study the impact of denying illegal immigrants in-state tuition.

Currently, out-of-state students pay about $9,000 annually for tuition and fees at a California State University campus, compared with less than $2,000 a year for residents.

To qualify under the new policy, students must have attended high school in California for three or more years and have graduated from a high school in the state. They must also file an affidavit proving they have applied for lawful immigration status with the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service or show proof of legal status.

The law, which takes effect for students this academic year, applies to the more than 2.5 million-student California community college system and the 370,000-student California State University system.

The change will not immediately affect students entering the prestigious, 170,000-student University of California system because that system is governed separately by a board of regents that must vote to implement the in-state-tuition plan.

University of California officials supported the policy, which the regents expect to take up in the near future, a spokesman for the 10-campus system said.

New Hope

John Orendorff, a college counselor at Belmont High School in downtown Los Angeles, lauded the change, saying it will make a dramatic difference in the college prospects of his students.

He estimated that up to 35 percent of students at the 5,400-student high school could be helped by the new law.

“A complete burden has been lifted off this office and off this school,” he said. “It gives hope to students who were trapped in a form of indentured servitude.”

Mr. Orendorff explained that he has seen many high-achieving students give up on their college aspirations because of their undocumented-immigrant status. “This is a tremendous victory,” he said of the new law.

The law represents a long-sought win for Assemblyman Marco A. Firebaugh, a Democrat from Los Angeles who sponsored the legislation.

Gov. Davis vetoed similar legislation proposed by Mr. Firebaugh last year because it would also have allowed illegal immigrants to qualify for state financial aid, a provision that the governor feared would violate federal law.

A 1998 federal immigration law prohibited undocumented immigrants from receiving a “postsecondary education benefit,” such as lower tuition, that doesn’t go to all U.S. citizens. But states and higher education institutions were left on their own to interpret that language because policy guidelines for the law were never drawn up.

By eliminating eligibility for state financial aid, such as loans and grants, Mr. Firebaugh crafted a bill this year that was acceptable to the governor.

The Texas law, in contrast, allows illegal-immigrant students to seek state financial aid.

Mr. Davis, a first-term governor who is up for re-election next year, was also under increasing pressure to sign the measure.

Mr. Firebaugh, who could not be reached for comment, has predicted that between 5,000 and 7,000 high school students in California could be affected by the change.

Despite protests from groups concerned about illegal immigration into the United States, interest in tuition breaks is growing.

Several lawmakers in Congress have introduced legislation that would grant new legal status to undocumented-immigrant students beginning in the 7th grade and continuing until they reach 21 as long as they are in school or pursuing college admission.

The proposed Student Adjustment Act, sponsored originally by U.S. Rep. Howard L. Berman, D-Calif., would also allow states to decide who is considered a resident for in-state tuition. The bill has been referred to both the judiciary and education committees but has not been taken up yet.

Ira Mehlman, the media coordinator for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a Washington-based group that advocates tightening current immigration policy, criticized the flurry of legislative interest in the tuition issue.

“When you’re talking about education subsidies, you’re talking about making choices. The first priority should be legal residents,” Mr. Mehlman added.

Louis Caldera, the vice chancellor of university advancement for the California State University system, which comprises 23 campuses, backs the change.

“These are young people who are already here and will likely have a long-term presence in California in the future,” Mr. Caldera, a former U.S. secretary of the Army, said. “This is the morally right thing to do.”

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