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Immigrant Tuition Break Rejected by Arkansas Senate Panel


A Senate panel on Monday rejected a bill to grant the children of undocumented immigrants in-state tuition, a proposal that divided the head of Arkansas’ flagship university and the state’s higher education chief.

The Senate Education Committee on a voice vote rejected the proposal by Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, to grant in-state tuition to any student who attended high school in the state for at least three years and has a high school diploma.

Before the vote, Elliott compared the issue to the 1957 integration of Little Rock Central High School and said it was the state’s “Daisy Bates moment,” a reference to the woman who mentored the Little Rock Nine.

“We know what happens in this state when we choose not to educate a group of folks. We’re living it,” Elliott told the panel. “We know how this movie ends.”

Elliott’s proposal faced stiff resistance heading into Monday’s panel, including opposition from the state’s governor and from some lawmakers who had backed a similar proposal four years ago. As a House member, Elliott in 2005 originally proposed offering in-state tuition and scholarships to the children of undocumented immigrants.

That measure passed the House, but failed in the Senate despite removal of the scholarship provision.

University of Arkansas at Fayetteville Chancellor David Gearhart told senators on Monday that he believed Elliott’s proposal was good public policy. Most of the people affected by the proposal came to the country as young children and have spent most of their lives in the state already.

“I do not believe we should hold children accountable for the decisions of their parents,” Gearhart said.

Jim Purcell, director of the state Department of Higher Education, told the panel that extending the in-state tuition rate could run afoul of federal law. As attorney general in 2005, Beebe issued an opinion that said it could violate a 1996 federal law that said no higher education benefit shall be available to illegal immigrants’ children unless it’s also available to every U.S. citizen.

Purcell said that doing so would essentially eliminate out-of-state tuition and could reduce revenue to the state’s colleges and universities by about $38 million.

“We believe the rule should be followed and we’ve been given guidance that the rule of law from federal government does not allow this,” Purcell said.

Elliott, however, said she thinks the federal law could be interpreted to allow the state to offer the in-state tuition rates to undocumented immigrants and anyone else who meets the other requirements of attending school in the state for at least three years and having a diploma from an Arkansas high school.

“We can vote for this bill without breaking the law,” Elliott said.

The idea also attracted opposition from representatives of Secure Arkansas, a group that failed to gather enough signatures to put on last year’s ballot a measure aimed at denying state benefits to undocumented immigrants.

“Out-of-state students don’t get in-state tuition, so why should the children of illegal aliens get in-state tuition?” said Jeannie Burlsworth, the group’s chairwoman.

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