PHOENIX – More than two years after Arizona voters passed a law denying in-state college tuition and other state-funded benefits to undocumented immigrants, thousands of people are still applying for those services and being turned away.
Supporters of the law say the numbers are evidence that the measure is working, saving money that the state shouldn’t be paying to educate people who came here illegally. Opponents say the numbers show thousands of bright young people are being denied the opportunity to improve their lives through education and contribute to society.
The law, known as Proposition 300, was approved in 2006 by more than 70 percent of Arizona voters. It requires state agencies to verify the immigration status of applicants for state-funded services such as child care and adult education, along with in-state tuition and financial aid for college students.
Reports submitted to the Legislature show that during the first six months of 2009, 71 percent of the 485 applicants for family literacy courses were denied benefits because they couldn’t prove legal immigration status. The courses are aimed at teaching parents without high school diplomas, and their young children.
Thirty-two people were denied state-assisted child care, according to the reports.
More than 3,400 community college students and nearly 300 university students paid nonresident tuition because they couldn’t prove they were in the country legally. Thousands more university students never had their immigration status checked because they didn’t seek in-state tuition or state-funded financial aid.
Because nonresident students pay more than the actual cost of providing their education, Arizona’s colleges and universities actually profited from undocumented immigrant students.
The millions of dollars in savings has freed up money for programs for legal residents, said State Treasurer Dean Martin, who as a state senator in 2006 sponsored the legislation referring Proposition 300 to the ballot.
“The state was literally subsidizing illegal behavior,” Martin said.
Although state agencies are required to report biannually how many people have been denied services under the law, calculating governments’ actual cost savings is difficult.
At Arizona community colleges and universities, which report the vast majority of service denials, the cost of educating students varies widely based on class sizes, faculty experience and other factors. It’s also impossible to know how many people never applied because they knew they couldn’t afford out-of-state tuition.
But if all of the Maricopa County Community College District’s 1,474 undocumented immigrant students took a full-time course load, they paid an additional $7.5 million as nonresident students.
The number is harder to report for the three state universities, whose reports to the Legislature don’t show how many undocumented immigrants are enrolled.
Connie Anderson, who advocates for immigrants for the Valley Interfaith Project, said out-of-state tuition is prohibitively expensive for most immigrants, leaving eager high school graduates with nothing to do. Many of them were brought to Arizona as children and don’t know any other home.
“We’re sidelining the best of our kids and wasting human talent,” Anderson said.
Her organization is promoting federal legislation that would grant legal residency to some people who were brought illegally to the United States as children.
Martin said the state subsidizes education because college graduates earn more money and eventually pay back the state with their higher income taxes. But undocumented immigrants cannot legally work in the United States so they can’t pay back the state’s investment.
“When we’re talking about college students, we’re not talking about children anymore,” Martin said. “At this point, you are responsible for following the law yourself.”
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