These bills are unfortunate. We will not benefit as a state or nation by not educating Mexican nationals. -Angela
Lawmakers revisit tuition discounts for illegal immigrants
Opponents say people who break the law shouldn't get tuition break.
By Juan Castillo
Friday, April 20, 2007
Julieta graduated with honors from Anderson High School, overcoming limited English skills and other obstacles to draw the notice of Yale and University of Spain recruiters. Now chasing her dream to become a nurse practitioner — and a master's degree at the University of Texas — Julieta perennially makes the national dean's list and the president's honor roll and carries a shiny 3.9 grade point average.
"I like school," she said with modest understatement.
On Thursday at a hearing before state lawmakers, the 26-year-old Austin woman joined a parade of speakers testifying on proposals to repeal a Texas law allowing certain illegal immigrants to receive cheaper in-state tuition rates at state universities.
Julieta said before the hearing that her dream would be impossible if she had to pay the more expensive tuition rates charged to non-Texas residents. She said she pays about $4,000 a semester in tuition for three classes, the same amount she would have to pay for just one class under the out-of-state rates.
"And even that's a lot for me," said Julieta, who asked that only her first name be used because she's not a legal resident.
When the Legislature enacted its groundbreaking tuition law in 2001, Gov. Rick Perry and supporters hailed it as an investment in Texas' future and a compassionate way to help immigrants attend college.
"It's probably one of the most heralded things that our state has done in the area of higher ed" said Rep. Rick Noriega, D-Houston, who authored the 2001 tuition measure.
But with Congress unable to find solutions to illegal immigration, state legislatures are struggling to decide whether to extend or deny in-state tuition to illegal immigrants. Since Texas enacted its law, nine other states have passed similar laws, and three have restricted access.
"I think the people of my district are demanding that we do something regarding illegal immigration," said Rep. Debbie Riddle, R-Tomball. "They're demanding that both federal and state governments do something about securing our borders . . . and they're incensed that illegal immigrants are getting in-state tuition."
Riddle's House Bill 104 would stipulate that only legal residents be eligible for in-state tuition. It was among a handful of similar proposals considered late Thursday by the House State Affairs Committee.
Riddle said her proposal would not prevent undocumented immigrants from attending state universities, "but they're going to have to pay (the more expensive) tab."
Lawmakers were still hearing testimony late Thursday night from dozens of speakers, many of them college students in business attire. An overflow crowd required some to watch the proceedings on television in another room.
Before hearing testimony from the public, several House Democrats buffeted Riddle with questions in sometimes emotional exchanges.
Riddle said her proposal sticks up for "hard-working, middle-class people" who are struggling to pay their mortgage and other bills and footing the cost of their children's educations.
"I think that it is fundamentally wrong for the state to take money out of their pockets in order to pay for someone who is not here legally to go to our state universities," Riddle said.
"It depends whose pocket you're talking about," said Rep. Jessica Farrar, D-Houston. She and other legislators said undocumented immigrants also pay income and sales taxes.
Like other opponents of in-state-tuition laws across the country, Riddle says they give preference to illegal immigrants. Groups have challenged in-state-tuition laws in California and Kansas, arguing that a 1996 federal law bars states from allowing cheaper tuition for illegal immigrants without offering the same to nonresidents. Courts upheld both laws.
State officials, however, say the requirements for in-state tuition apply to all students, regardless of their legal status, so Texas is not violating federal law.
To qualify in Texas, students must live in the state at least three years continuously before graduating from high school or receiving the equivalent of a diploma. Students who are not citizens or permanent residents of the United States must declare an intention to seek legal resident status as soon as they are eligible.
Since it was enacted, 11,130 students have used the law to qualify for the cheaper tuition. The total includes undocumented students and legal residents, according to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.
Before the hearing, Noriega disagreed with Riddle's contention that in-state tuition burdens taxpayers. He said Texas invests $100,000 per student to provide a primary and secondary education.
"When you have students that we know have a higher degree of education, they're able to contribute back to the economy," Noriega said. "It just makes sense for us to protect our economic investment."
Public policy merits often get lost in the highly emotional debate about illegal immigration, said Josh Bernstein,q federal policy director of the National Immigration Law Center, an immigrant advocacy group. "We need to recognize that there are competing values involved, all legitimate, I think," Bernstein said.
Although it is true that some students receiving in-state tuition rates aren't authorized to be here, Bernstein said, it's also important to consider that they are the brightest overachievers, who overcame poverty, unfamiliarity with English and other obstacles to excel in high schools.
Many immigrant advocates argue, too, that undocumented students shouldn't be penalized for the decisions their parents made to enter the country illegally.
But, Riddle said, "I don't think anyone is being penalized here with repealing the law."
Julieta said before the hearing that she was 11 when she came to the United States with her mother and sister. Her mother was a victim of spousal abuse. When her parents divorced, her mother couldn't sustain the family on a single income in Mexico City.
Undocumented students aren't asking for special handouts, Julieta said. "We want to become someone."
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