As a founder of the University Leadership Initiative, an advocacy group for undocumented students in Texas, Julieta Garibay sorts through the numerous e-mails her organization receives daily.
Before the economic downturn, most of the e-mails were from students in the state. Now, because Texas is a rare exception in allowing undocumented college students to receive state financial aid, Garibay fields requests from undocumented students across the country inquiring whether they too would be eligible for aid in Texas.
She has to tell them they are not.
“Every time you hear a new story, it’s just as bad as the last one,” Garibay says of the desperate pleas of undocumented students struggling to pay tuition. Lacking U.S. citizenship, they often have to pay the much higher tuition charged to international students.
While much of the evidence is anecdotal, undocumented students across the country have been hampered in their quests for higher learning by the dismal economy and restrictive state legislation targeted at immigrants. The tide against states’ help for these students has been rising as three states last year established prohibitions against in-state tuition benefits — one state, South Carolina, prohibited college enrollment altogether — and laws friendly to undocumented students in two other states hang in jeopardy.
“Like many other students who are applying for college these days, undocumented students are facing very high tuition rates, but then, because of their immigration status, there’s another hurdle that they have to overcome,” says Olga Medina, an immigration policy associate with the National Council of La Raza. “There are very limited opportunities for them to obtain sources of funding for their education, and then there’s the fact that there are very limited jobs.”
Budget crises have led some states and institutions of higher education to increase revenue by raising tuition, according to Matias Ramos, an educational fellow with the National Immigration Law Center. To mitigate the hike, states make available additional financial aid resources.
“But you have to consider that since undocumented students are not (eligible) to apply for financial aid, a rise in tuition
hurts them exponentially more than it hurts their peers who are legal residents or U.S. citizens,” Ramos says.
The Rise of Restrictions
The early part of this decade was marked by movements to make college more accessible for undocumented students by granting in-state tuition to those who met specific requirements, such as graduating from a U.S. high school and living in the state for a certain amount of time. Between 2001 and 2006, 10 states passed laws permitting the practice, and this past summer Wisconsin joined their ranks.
However, in the last three years, four states — Arizona, Colorado, Georgia and Oklahoma — passed laws that prohibited undocumented students from paying in-state tuition. The measure in Oklahoma was unique because the state was one of the 10 that allowed undocumented students to attend public colleges at in-state rates.
Before it repealed that law, it also allowed undocumented students to receive state financial aid. Students enrolled in Oklahoma colleges before the 2008 repeal still receive aid; new students are ineligible.
Bills on both sides of the issue are pending in statehouses across the country. Some states make attending public universities almost impossible for undocumented students. Although not a law, Virginia’s public institutions in 2003 were instructed by state Attorney General Jerry Kilgore to require proof of residency or U.S. citizenship from all applicants. In 2008, South Carolina began denying admission to undocumented students at all state institutions of higher education. Virginia and Colorado officials considered denying in-state tuition benefits to U.S.-born children whose parents are here illegally, but those efforts were beat back by advocates.
Data show a decrease in the number of undocumented college students in all states that passed restrictive laws. When Arizona’s law went into effect in January 2007, some 1,500 students from Arizona State University and the University of Arizona were denied state financial aid or the in-state tuition benefit because they could not prove their legal status, according to a state legislative committee report that year. Today, according to a newly released report, slightly more than 300 known undocumented students are enrolled in state universities in Arizona. There may be significantly more since an unknown number of undocumented students enrolled as international students without applying for in-state benefits.
Even more troubling to advocates for undocumented students are recent developments in Texas and California, two states that grant undocumented students in-state tuition.
In late July, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott issued an opinion that allowing undocumented students in-state tuition did not violate the Constitution as argued by state Rep. Leo Berman, who is leading a move in the state Legislature to repeal the in-state tuition and financial aid law. But Abbott added the state’s rule might violate federal immigration law, which left the issue open to further debate and has allowed Berman’s bill to gain momentum.
Similarly, a case challenging the legality of allowing in-state tuition to undocumented California students, Martinez v. Regents of the University of California, is pending before the California Supreme Court. At issue is the denial of the same privilege to U.S. citizens who are non-Californians but have to pay higher out-of-state tuition. Other states are watching these cases closely as any decisions could have a major impact on the issue at the national level. Conflicting laws and the issues raised in Texas and California have advocates of the federal Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act pushing harder than ever for the bill. That proposed federal legislation would alleviate the struggles undocumented students face in pursuing higher education. However, with the other issues considered higher priorities in Congress, advocates are concerned that any such bill could get put on the back burner.
“You see immigration reform in general has been sort of stalled,” Ramos said. “With the impressive agenda this administration is tackling with regard to health care, economic stimulus packages, cap and trade, etcetera, it’s so many issues that immigration might again fly under the radar.”
The DREAM Act, first introduced in 2001, would, among other things, provide undocumented children a pathway to legal immigration status, either by attending a U.S. college or serving in the military. Under the bill, these students would be eligible for in-state tuition in their home states and could take out student loans and hold work-study positions.
Proponents of the DREAM Act compare it to an economic stimulus plan. The National Foundation for American Policy projected that the tax revenue from beneficiaries of the bill could reach upward of $400 billion in the next 50 years. Indeed, North Carolina community college officials reversed their 2008 ban on enrolling undocumented students after a report showed the state lost money by excluding those students. However, undocumented students will be required to pay out-of-state tuition, almost five times the in-state rate.
Jena Baker McNeill, a policy analyst for Homeland Security at the Heritage Foundation, disputes the findings on tax benefits. Like many experts, McNeill sees this as a part of a larger immigration debate. She says the bill would reward those who violate immigration laws and place a significant economic burden on the American higher education system.
“A lot of states are struggling with budget issues, and this would be a very large loss for them in their university systems,” McNeill says. “Most universities make their money off out-of-state students. If you figure that a student that would normally have to pay out-of-state rates now gets to pay in-state rates, that’s expensive for the university.”
As the DREAM Act languishes on Capitol Hill, undocumented students are finding there’s more competition for limited resources. “We [at ULI] try to direct students to as many resources as we can,” Garibay says. “But there’s only a certain amount of things they can apply to. The majority of the scholarships require citizenship or residency. It just makes it really hard.”
It’s not that universities don’t care or want to help, advocates say, but financial aid offices are often limited given laws and guidelines.
Arizona State University provided private scholarships to nearly 200 undocumented students after Arizona passed legislation in 2007 that made them ineligible for in-state tuition. However, the aid, estimated at $1.8 million, was a one-time award.
“Some (schools) are open to working with us and understand our situation,” says José, an undocumented student at the University of Texas-Austin who did not want to use his last name because of his immigration status. “But schools are not publicly listing resources for undocumented students.”
Benedictine College freshman Eddie, who didn’t want his last named used, says the willingness of the Kansas institution to assist him in securing funding played a major role in his decision to attend the school. He discovered his undocumented status made him ineligible for federal financial aid only after applying to college.
“Benedictine” couldn’t give me as much money as they wished because of my status, but they gave me a sufficient amount,” he says. “They also really helped me look for different scholarships I could apply for.”
A collection of scholarships cover about half of Eddie’s tuition, leaving a $14,000 balance. The sum felt insurmountable after his father was laid off from his job, a casualty of a weakening economy, but the community rallied around Eddie as family, friends and parishioners at his church donated money for his education. Unemployment is at its highest rate in over three decades. Many families are struggling, but undocumented immigrants like Eddie’s family have been especially vulnerable in the recession as jobs become less available and anti-immigration sentiment grows.
In a September 2009 report, the Migration Policy Institute found the number of people illegally entering the country annually has declined by almost half (from 1 million to 600,000) since the recession hit, an indicator that the economy here is affecting the undocumented population. But exactly how many families have been impacted is hard to discern.
“When you’re looking at measures of the undocumented population, they’re inaccurate,” Medina says. “Most of the time, people would argue the numbers are a lot higher.”
The study also found that the unemployment rate for Mexican and Central American immigrants, including undocumented workers, almost tripled in the last two years, rising from 4.4 percent to 11.4 percent.
Given the state of the economy, financial aid guidance becomes critically important for undocumented students.
“With all of our students we understand the importance of getting a high-quality education, so we’re going to make every effort we can to do everything we can to try to help them access the kind of education we can provide here,” says Benedictine Financial Aid Director Tony Tanking.
Tanking says undocumented students are categorized as international students in terms of financial aid but that the school works with them to find every available avenue of funding.
However, undocumented students make up a small percentage of the student body. That’s something Medina says is key to understanding this debate.
“In a lot of colleges and universities, the undocumented student population is actually very small, so they aren’t having this huge effect that people say they are,” with regard to a financial burden or taking a space away from documented students, she says.
Undocumented students have been searching for benefactors to sponsor their entire education, but more often funding comes in small increments from people throughout the community. Still, Garibay acknowledges nowadays many people have less to give.
Despite the landscape, advocates view incremental policy changes like the one affecting North Carolina community colleges as positive.
“We’re still going to be here and keep fighting,” José says of undocumented students. “The obstacles are great, but our dreams are bigger.”