Missouri House Denies Undocumented Students Access too Public Colleges

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — For the third year in a row, Missouri House members voted Wednesday to bar undocumented immigrants from public colleges and universities.

The legislation would require higher education institutions to verify to lawmakers that they have not knowingly enrolled undocumented immigrants before the institutions can receive state money.

House members gave first-round approval to the bill Wednesday on a voice vote, after defeating an amendment to exempt community colleges from the bill. A second vote is needed to send the bill to the Senate, where it has stalled the past two years.

This year, a similar provision already is pending in a Senate committee as part of broader bill targeting undocumented immigrants and the businesses that hire them.

As a result of a 1982 Supreme Court decision, states must provide K-12 public education to all students, whether they are in the U.S. legally or not. But federal law discourages states from providing undocumented immigrants a higher education.

Sponsoring Rep. Jerry Nolte said there is a logical reason for the distinction.

“It does not make economic sense to spend taxpayer money to train a work force that is not legal to work here,” said Nolte, R-Gladstone.

Others countered that it makes no sense to punish children who were brought illegally to the United States by their parents and grew up calling this country their home.

With this legislation, “we’re telling children, because their parents break the law, they’re lawbreakers, too,” said Rep. Ed Wildberger, D-St. Joseph. His amendment to exempt community colleges from the prohibition on enrolling undocumented immigrants was defeated 102-46.

A 1996 federal law prohibits states from offering resident college tuition rates to students illegally present in the United States unless all U.S. citizens are eligible for the same tuition breaks.

But at least 10 states have subsequently enacted laws allowing in-state college tuition to students illegally in the U.S., including neighboring Illinois, Kansas, Nebraska and Oklahoma.

Missouri’s colleges aren’t knowingly enrolling undocumented immigrants, said James Kellerman, executive director of the Missouri Community Colleges Association. But it’s possible they may nonetheless be admitting some undocumented immigrants, he said.

“As an open admission institution, anyone who shows up with a high school diploma from an accredited high school, we admit,” Kellerman said. “We don’t profile them because their name is Gonzales or they have a Spanish-sounding name.”

State Rep. Jeff Roorda, D-Barnhart, contended the “hate-mongering legislation” was being driven by concerns about undocumented immigrants crossing the Mexico-United States border. But he said the real effect would fall upon immigrants from Africa, Asia and the Middle East who stay in the United States to continue their education after their student visas have expired.

Such students would be “stuck in this net of hatred we’ve woven for our neighbors from the South,” Roorda said.

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