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Congress Takes Up Competing Bills On In-state Tuition For Illegal Immigrants

Congress Takes Up Competing Bills On In-state Tuition For Illegal Immigrants

By Charles Dervarics

The U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate are on a collision course this summer over a plan that would penalize public colleges that offer in-state tuition to illegal immigrants.

Such colleges would face tighter scrutiny under a bill approved by a powerful House committee in June. These public colleges and universities could lose significant federal funding, particularly if they use federal dollars to support these policies.

Ten states currently provide in-state tuition breaks at public colleges, and others are considering similar legislation, says the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. But the policies continue to face criticism from those who want to toughen federal laws against illegal immigrants.

“These statutes must be repealed because they violate federal law and defy common sense,” says Rep. John Culberson, R-Texas, chief sponsor of the plan, which the House Appropriations Committee successfully added to Congress’ 2007 education funding bill.

Under his proposal, Culberson says states could offer discounted rates to undocumented students only if they also offer the same lower rate to legal U.S. residents from all 50 states. Texas is among the 10 states that provide in-state rates to illegal immigrants.

But critics called the amendment misguided. “It is a mean-spirited attack on states that are actually moving forward and struggling with this issue,” says Melissa Lazarin, senior policy analyst for education reform, at the National Council of La Raza in Washington, D.C.

“People in these states want to see young people going to college whether they are undocumented or not,” she says. Their higher education aspirations “benefit the state and its residents.”

Many of the state laws skirt the immigration issue by using graduation from an in-state high school as the main criteria for discounted tuition. Some laws also require an individual to live in the state for two to three years, Lazarin says, but few focus on the issue of legal residency.

States have flexibility to set their own policies on who receives in-state tuition, she adds. In some states, the laws require undocumented students to sign a form pledging to seek legal status as soon as possible.

There is little federal involvement in this process, according to Lazarin, since undocumented students are not eligible for Pell Grants and other federal financial aid.

The 10 states offering in-state tuition to un-documented students are California, Illinois, Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah and Washington, according to AASCU. Maryland and Mississippi have introduced bills allowing undocumented students to receive in-state tuition and state financial aid.

On the other end of the spectrum, Alaska, Arizona, Florida and Virginia have passed laws restricting undocumented students’ access to in-state tuition rates and financial aid.

In a mid-June alert to its members, AASCU said it is working with the U.S. Department of Education to clarify the effect of the Culberson amendment on public colleges. If approved by the full House and then the Senate, the provision may set a new precedent “because the federal government would be, in essence, telling the states how to set tuition for its public colleges and universities,” according to the AASCU statement.

But the proposal likely would draw little support in the Senate, which has taken a different view of immigrant education issues, Lazarin says. This spring, the Senate approved the DREAM Act, which would allow undocumented students to earn their way to citizenship if they pursue higher education and meet other standards. The bill does not address in-state tuition.

“They are American in every sense except their technical legal status,” says Sen. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., who is co-sponsoring the bill with Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind. “They are honor roll students, star athletes, talented artists and valedictorians. They also are tomorrow’s doctors, nurses, teachers, policemen, firefighters, soldiers and senators.”

Senators attached the DREAM Act to a comprehensive immigration reform bill that cleared the chamber in late May by a 62-36 vote. That bill also would increase border enforcement and take other steps to curb illegal immigration.

The House last December approved a separate immigration bill that focuses largely on prevention and border enforcement and does not contain the DREAM Act.

Congressional aides are seeking floor action within the next month on Culberson’s plan. If approved, it would automatically become part of the House/Senate negotiations on a final education budget bill for the next fiscal year.

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