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In Arkansas, Odds Great Against Immigrant In-state Tuition Bill


When Joyce Elliott pushed for extending in-state tuition to the children of undocumented immigrants four years ago, she had a lot of factors on her side.

No House members spoke against the proposal that she sponsored as a state representative, and she had the strident backing of a governor who pushed for it to include a scholarship portion.

Now the Democrats’ leader in the Senate, Elliott is ready to revive the fight that she lost over the tuition bill in 2005. The senator from Little Rock has again proposed allowing any student who has attended high school in the state for at least three years and has a diploma from an Arkansas school to pay in-state tuition.

Elliott acknowledges that getting the measure through the Legislature won’t be easy. A number of factors show it’s probably impossible.

But she doesn’t seem to care.

“I think we’re in the Legislature to lead as well as represent, and to me to lead doesn’t mean you wait for a favorable climate,” Elliott said. “If we do, I think the sacrifice could be too great.”

Offering undocumented immigrants in-state tuition rates is an idea that the governor has said could violate federal law. Elliott said she’s not trying to openly disregard the law, but also said there are times when “bumping against” the law has been necessary.

“Just as when this country was founded, we should remember, we were bumping right up against the British law that said we didn’t have a right to form a country. But we did it anyway because it was the right thing to do at the time,” Elliott said. “So we’re going to have to decide: Are we going to take definitive steps to challenge what is out there in the interest of these kids and our state, or are we just going to acquiesce?”

It’s an argument that Elliott has made before, but this time she’ll probably have an even harder time persuading her colleagues to go along with it.

House members passed similar legislation in 2005 after Elliott talked emotionally about her own fight for educational attainment in segregated south Arkansas. She was also joined by numerous other representatives who backed her on the proposal.

This time, however, it’s questionable whether she can even get it to the Senate floor for an up or down vote.

The biggest asset she may have had in her 2005 push was the support of then-Gov. Mike Huckabee, who challenged fellow Republicans by supporting the tuition measure. Huckabee even pushed for inclusion of a provision to allow the children of undocumented immigrants to be eligible for state-funded scholarships, a position that earned him criticism during his unsuccessful bid for the presidency last year.

“If a person is driving a van down the interstate with lots of kids and the driver is pulled over for speeding, is it appropriate to say all those kids are lawbreakers?” Huckabee said then. “If you’re going to penalize the children for the sins of the parents, then we’re not very consistent about that.”

This time, Elliott’s running the proposal without the backing of the state’s chief executive. Instead, she’ll likely face strong opposition from Gov. Mike Beebe, who issued a legal opinion as the state’s top attorney that helped kill the proposal in 2005.

The bill failed after Beebe, then the state’s attorney general, released a legal opinion that said offering undocumented immigrants in-state tuition rates likely would violate the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.

Beebe’s 2005 opinion also said the measure might run afoul of a 1996 federal law that said no higher-education benefit could be provided to undocumented immigrants’ children unless it’s also available to every U.S. citizen.

Beebe’s past opposition seems enough to thwart Elliott’s measure in a Legislature that has mostly followed the popular governor’s path on major issues.

She also faces skepticism from her colleagues on the Senate Education Committee.

“I do not support any laws anywhere that encourage people to break other laws,” said state Sen. Kim Hendren, R-Gravette, who sits on the panel.

State Sen. Jimmy Jeffress, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said he’s not sure if Elliott can get the votes to get the measure out of the eight-member panel. Jeffress, who supported the proposal four years ago, said he’s leaning toward the proposal again.

But he noted that Elliott is bringing the proposal up in the chamber that rejected the tuition and scholarship bill four years ago, and probably faces a less receptive House this time around.

“If it even does get out of the Senate, it won’t do nearly as well in the House as it did four years ago,” Jeffress said.

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