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Hanging in the Balance

Hanging in the Balance

By Ronald Roach

Federal legislation may chart new course for states considering whether to grant in-state tuition to undocumented immigrant students.

While advising Los Angeles-area high school students on their higher education plans, Ivna Gusmao, a counselor at Reseda High School in the
San Fernando Valley, has long counseled hope to those struggling to make it into college. She has tailored that advice to include poor and working-class immigrant students lacking citizenship status. This spring at the predominantly Hispanic school, Gusmao has worked with more than 20 college-bound undocumented immigrant students out of a graduating class of 500. In all, as many as 200 graduating seniors will attend a four-year college next year, she says.

“I know of two undocumented seniors whose families moved to Las Vegas this past year, and I told them they needed to graduate from a California high school to qualify for in-state tuition rates,” Gusmao says. “Both students made arrangements to remain in Los Angeles so they could graduate here this spring.”

With California being only one of 10 U.S. states allowing undocumented immigrant students to attend public institutions at in-state tuition rates, academically ambitious immigrants like the ones counseled by Gusmao have slowly trickled into the state’s higher education system. Demographer Jeffrey Passel, in a nationwide 2003 analysis, estimated there were between 7,000 and 13,000 illegal immigrant students enrolled in public colleges and universities.

By some estimates, U.S. high schools graduate about 65,000 undocumented immigrant students every year.

Experts say college attendance by undocumented students would be much higher if they didn’t have the added burden of financing public education at out-of-state or foreign student tuition rates. And because of their undocumented status, they are unable to quality for federal, and in many cases, state financial aid.

Is Federal Legislation the Answer?
Immigration advocates say the brightest hope for undocumented students could result from passage of federal immigration reform legislation that would ease their path to legal residency. As of mid-May, the comprehensive immigration reform bills in both chambers of the U.S. Congress included provisions of the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act of 2007, a legal residency bill that has languished in past Congresses.

“The DREAM Act would make it easier for young people who aren’t U.S. citizens to attend college. Passing the DREAM Act will give more of our children an opportunity to succeed,” says U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.

According to DREAM Act provisions, students who have completed high school and at least two years of college or military service could obtain permanent legal residency. Another key DREAM Act provision would reverse a 1996 federal law that prohibits a state from offering in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants unless that state offers it to all of their enrolled U.S. citizens.

Despite the 1996 statute, California, Texas and eight other states have enacted laws allowing undocumented students to pay in-state college tuition provided they had at least graduated from a high school within that state. There are 20 additional states that unsuccessfully have attempted to pass such legislation in the last several years.

Melissa Lazarin, the associate director for education policy at the National Council of La Raza, calls the DREAM Act a pathway to citizenship.

“It provides a pathway for individuals who came here as children and have grown up [here],” she says. “It actually doesn’t provide in-state tuition. What it does is make it easier for states to provide in-state tuition if they so choose.”

Observers say more states may allow undocumented students to qualify for in-state tuition if the 1996 law is reversed by the DREAM Act.

“There are examples of states, such as Minnesota, where state education leaders have not acted on the issue because of the federal restrictions that the DREAM Act addresses. Passage of the
DREAM Act would definitely remove that political barrier for addressing the issue,” says Dr. Bruce Vandal, director of the Postsecondary Education and Workforce Development Institute at the Education Commission of the States, a nonprofit research organization that promotes public education best practices among U.S. states.

Adds Lazarin, “we know that this is an issue that states are grappling with. It is something where they really do need some leadership from the federal level.”

Despite the staunch opposition faced by the DREAM Act in the past, immigration reform advocates believe the measure has a strong chance of passing this year as part of comprehensive immigration reform legislation. Advocates, however, caution that even with Democrats in control of both houses of Congress, 2007 represents a critical year for comprehensive reform because it’s believed neither political party will want to make it a central issue in the 2008 presidential election season.

“I think we’re very optimistic. [The DREAM Act has] already been included in the STRIVE Act, which is the House comprehensive immigration reform bill,” says Lazarin. “We are a little more hopeful given the shift in the House and the Senate. We’re a lot more optimistic about its prospects.”

David Hawkins, the public policy director for the National Association of College Admission Counseling, says the DREAM Act’s inclusion in comprehensive immigration reform bills should increase the possibility of the legislation being enacted. Given limited time on the congressional calendar, Hawkins says he doesn’t think the DREAM Act will generate the fierce opposition it encountered when it was considered as a standalone bill.

“In this Congress, the vehicle is everything. I don’t see [the DREAM Act] getting on the agenda by itself,” he says.

In addition to reversing the 1996 ban on in-state tuition for undocumented students, opponents of the DREAM Act say it creates, in effect, an illegal alien amnesty program. In a recent brief for the conservative Heritage Foundation, University of Missouri-Kansas City Law School professor Kris W. Kobach described the Act as “a nightmare.”

Bob Dane, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), which opposes guest worker and amnesty proposals, says that from their perspective, the DREAM Act is really an amnesty bill disguised as an educational initiative.

“We consider it piecemeal amnesty, and it’s not likely to survive a challenge if the comprehensive immigration reform bill undergoes tough negotiating,” he says. “In-state tuition for illegal immigrants does not resonate well with most Americans.”

Taking it to the States
While some pro-immigrant activists like Lazarin say they are optimistic that passage of the DREAM Act will persuade more states to approve in-state tuition for undocumented students, others wonder whether such efforts will withstand growing anti-illegal immigrant sentiment.

In recent years, six states have attempted to pass laws to formally deny undocumented immigrant students in-state tuition, according to the Education Commission of the States. Last November, one of those states, Arizona, succeeded when voters approved by a margin of 71.4 percent a referendum, Proposition 300, to deny in-state tuition and financial aid to unauthorized immigrants attending public colleges in the state. The new law says that students who do not show proof of U.S. citizenship or lawful immigration status are required to pay out-of-state tuition and cannot qualify for state aid. Prior to the proposition’s passage, Arizona colleges were not required to ask students about their citizenship status, according to officials.

Andres Tobar, the chairman of the Virginia Coalition of Latino Organizations, says immigration issues are becoming increasingly contentious at the state level, especially in states with sizeable immigrant populations. This past legislative session, he says, Virginia legislators considered more than 50 bills targeting undocumented immigrants. Most of them were negative, he says.

“This was the worst year ever,” Tobar says. “They were trying to deny any possible services or rights, and seeking to criminalize people just for being undocumented.”

In neighboring Maryland, which is generally thought to be considerably more immigrant-friendly than Virginia, Tobar says legislators recently shot down a proposal to grant in-state tuition to undocumented immigrant students.

“In Virginia, the tone is bad, but even in Maryland where this [legislation] might be better received, they couldn’t get it through,” he says. “We’re not optimistic that we’re going to win this issue in the immediate future. We need federal legislation to resolve this in a fair manner.”

If the DREAM Act were to pass, FAIR’s Dane speculates that individual states’ economic conditions would likely play the largest factor in whether its legislators and governor would approve an in-state tuition law for undocumented students. “It could swing either way depending on the financial condition of the state. States that are dealing with tight budgets won’t pass in-state tuition for illegal immigrants because it’s costly,” Dane says.

Andrew Flagel, the dean of admissions at George Mason University, worries that leaders in states with significant immigrant populations, such as Virginia, are failing to see the plight of undocumented students in the context of their state’s future workforce needs. 

“There are some good models in other states. It makes good sense, particularly when you look at the data of our need for workforce development,” he says. “We’re talking about students who have
the drive, the determination and the academic talent to succeed
in our institutions.”

Flagel says workforce needs aren’t being met by workforce development in Northern Virginia, where George Mason is based.

According to Vandal, states like Texas, which began allowing in-state tuition to undocumented students in 2001, are positioning themselves to effectively deal with their future workforce needs.

“Texas has set ambitious statewide goals for increasing the number of its residents who are college educated to include increasing the number of individuals enrolled in higher education by 630,000 over current enrollments by 2015,” he says. “Given the demographics of the state, it is safe to say that their goals must include strategies to serve undocumented students.”

Of the 393 undocumented students who were attending public colleges in Texas in fall of 2001, 300 were enrolled in community colleges, according to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. By fall 2004, there were 3,792 undocumented students, 75 percent of whom were attending community college.

College counselors say that white-collar job prospects for the undocumented immigrant college graduates who are unable to seek legal residency or apply for work permits are limited. Entry-level professional and corporate jobs for college graduates typically exclude those who don’t have valid social security numbers, which is the case for unauthorized immigrants. “I tell (the undocumented) students they’ll be better off in the long run with a degree,” says Santiago Bernal, the assistant director of the University of California, Los Angeles’ Center for Community College Partnerships. Bernal adds that among the undocumented students he counsels the DREAM Act has been a source of hope for them.

In states that have already approved in-state tuition for undocumented students, the DREAM Act could provide a route towards legal employment after graduation.

“For states like those, DREAM is extremely important because they can really benefit from the investment that they’ve made if the legislation is passed,” Lazarin says. “It should mean a lot for states like Texas and California.”

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