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Public Divided Over In-state Tuition For Illegal Immigrants

Public Divided Over In-state Tuition For Illegal Immigrants

A new survey by the Pew Hispanic Center showed that a slight majority of Chicago residents favored affording illegal immigrants who graduate from high school in Illinois the same reduced college tuition rates as state residents.

Fifty four percent of poll respondents said unauthorized immigrants should be allowed to pay in-state tuition, while 41 percent said they “don’t think so.” Five percent didn’t know.

The results support the Pew study’s overall findings that while most Americans do not believe illegal immigrants should receive social services, a majority do stand behind affording them educational benefits.

“This demonstrates how divided some people are on this issue,” says Gabriel Escobar, associate director for publications at the center. “But clearly there is this perception that children of illegal immigrants should not be punished for the actions of their parents.”

Illegal immigrants are still unable to receive federal financial aid, however states are required to provide K-12 public education as a result of the 1982 Plyler v. Doe Supreme Court decision.

Nationwide, state legislators have been tackling the thorny issue of whether illegal immigrants should receive in-state tuition rates, which can be as much as 75 percent less than regular tuition rates and are supplemented by taxpayers.

Since 2001, more than 20 states have introduced bills addressing in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants. Nine states, including Texas and California, have enacted legislation in favor of illegal immigrants, and nine other states are considering similar bills. Seven states are considering bills prohibiting access to in-state tuition. An effort in the Virginia Legislature this winter threatened to prohibit any postsecondary education benefits to illegal immigrants. The state Senate, amid a flurry of controversy, defeated that measure.

The U.S. Congress has also stepped in to the discussion. Since 2003, a bipartisan group of senators has attempted to enact “the DREAM act,” which would repeal a 1996 law restricting in-state college tuition benefits for illegal immigrants. The bill, reintroduced last fall, would give conditional legal status to those who entered the country younger when they were 16 or younger, graduated from high school and were considered to be of good moral character. Those students would be able to obtain permanent resident status if they graduated from college or joined the military.

Those who oppose giving illegal immigrants in-state tuition say that such legislation condones lawbreaking. They express concern that it is taking education dollars away from U.S. citizens and legal immigrants. State budget cuts for higher education and anti-immigration sentiment following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks have helped fuel the criticism.

However, those in favor of such discounted rates argue that widening access to college will benefit the nation and the economy in the long term, and reduce unemployment and crime. The prospect of attending college also gives illegal immigrants a few extra years to work towards legal status before they are forced into illegal employment.

“People are graduating and they don’t have access to work because they don’t have documents and they don’t have access to college,” says Ann Morse, program director, Immigrant Policy Project, National Conference of State Legislatures. “People are saying this a waste of the investment in their K-12 education.”

— By Christina Asquith

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