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Laws on immigrant tuition vary

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Republican presidential candidate and Texas Gov. Rick Perry recently made statements at a town hall meeting in support of in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants – a courtesy the Lone Star State has offered for the past decade.

In a speech at the 2001 U.S.-Mexico Border Summit, Perry said “We must say to every Texas child learning in a Texas classroom, ‘We don’t care where you come from, but where you are going, and we are going to do everything we can to help you get there.’” He went on to say that children of undocumented workers in Texas were deserving of a resident tuition rate. “Those young minds are a part of a new generation of leaders, the doors of higher education must be open to them.”

But other state governments – including Indiana’s – disagree with Perry’s point of view.

A patchwork of laws

Since the 1996 creation of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, state governments have debated the wording of IIRIRA Section 505, which addresses college tuition rates for undocumented immigrants.

Without any accompanying congressional report language to provide guidance, states developed their own approaches for handling this touchy subject. California, New Mexico and Texas – along with nine other states – enacted laws that extended in-state tuition rates to undocumented immigrants. Oklahoma has since amended its law, leaving the decision on in-state tuition to the state’s Board of Regents, which so far has continued to allow it for undocumented immigrants.

This year, Indiana became the fourth, and northernmost, state to pass a law that prohibits in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants, joining Arizona, Colorado and Georgia. Two additional states – South Carolina and Alabama – have been sued for their laws prohibiting undocumented immigrants from enrolling in their state-funded colleges.

In Indiana, undocumented immigrant students are immediately feeling the impact of Public Law 209 as they struggle to find funding for college or find they have no choice but to drop out. Angela Adams, an immigration attorney at Lewis & Kappes, thinks Indiana could benefit from studying how other states have been able to enforce immigration policies, yet provide opportunities for immigrants who want to become educated, civically engaged members of society. Texas, she said, is a good model to study.

immigration“They’ve got many generations of Latino leaders. We don’t have that yet. We don’t have immigrants that are integrated into our leadership positions. I think that’s part of it,” she said. “But I also think Texas is a border state, and while you have issues like border enforcement, you also have the other side of the coin – you see the potential, you see the need. If we don’t educate these kids, what are they going to do?”

Research and findings

In April 2011, the Latino Policy Institute at Roger Williams University in Rhode Island released its report, “The Effects of In-State Tuition for Non-Citizens: A Systematic Review of the Evidence.”

The report found flaws in arguments both for and against in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants. The institute’s review found little support for the claim that providing in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants is a financial burden for states. The two studies that support that claim were produced by the Federation for Immigration Reform and the Center for Immigration Studies – both known for advocating stricter immigration laws. Neither report included information about statistical significance or standard error.

The Latino Policy Institute found that further research must be conducted to adequately assess the fiscal impact on states of tuition policies for undocumented immigrants. It also found that increasing enrollment rates for Latino non-citizens could lead to decreased high-school dropout rates, as many Latino non-citizens – knowing they may never attain a college education – may lose hope and drop out of high school.

In its June 2011 issue brief, the Alliance for Excellent Education reported that 7,000 students drop out of high school every day, adding up to just more than 1 million annually. The brief said that government spending for people who lack a high school diploma is typically greater than it is for those with higher levels of education because dropouts are more likely to be incarcerated and/or receive welfare or public health care.

Nationwide in 2009, the high school dropout rate for Hispanic youth was 17.6 percent – more than twice the national average of 8.1 percent, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

The DREAM Act

Young, undocumented immigrants have been pinning their hopes on the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, which creates a path to citizenship for immigrants who complete at least two years of college or military service. The federal legislation has been repeatedly introduced for the past 10 years, and it has failed every time.

Once a proponent of the DREAM Act, Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., withdrew his support of the legislation in May. Lugar said his decision was motivated by a speech by President Barack Obama, in which the president framed immigration as a “divisive election issue instead of attempting a legitimate debate on comprehensive reform.”

Adams and others who hope for a brighter future for young undocumented immigrants wonder if the DREAM Act may be gaining the momentum it needs to pass. While she knows Lugar has withdrawn his support of the DREAM Act, she is optimistic that he may take up the cause again.

“It almost passed last time, so we hope champions like Sen. Lugar hopefully will continue to push the DREAM Act, and maybe it will happen in the future,” she said.

But even if the DREAM Act does pass, undocumented immigrants who live in states where they can’t qualify for in-state tuition may still be unable to go to college.•

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