Tuesday, March 15, 2011

In-State Tuition for Undocumented Students? Of Course

The Maryland Senate has approved, by a 27-20 vote, legislation that would grant in-state tuition to undocumented students at public universities and community colleges. The bill would place significant restrictions on undocumented students before qualifying for in-state tuition, they must:
  • graduate from a Maryland high school and then attend a community college within the high school’s jurisdiction,
  • prove that taxes were paid by the student, parent or legal guardian for three years before entering college
  • complete an associate’s degree, or 60 credits, from a community college before they can qualify for in-state tuition at a four-year Maryland university
  • show proof of paid state income taxes while attending community college, and
  • sign an affidavit stating they will apply for legal residency when they are eligible

If they meet all of those requirements, then they can qualify for in-state tuition at a savings of about $10,000 per year.

Among those voting against the legislation were Senate Republican Leader Nancy Jacobs and Democratic Sen. Robert Zirkin - both had voted for a far more liberal version of the bill in 2003. That bill passed, but was vetoed by then governor Robert Ehrlich. Zirkin explained that his thinking on immigration had "evolved" since 2003 - by evolved he likely means that he has been influenced by anti-immigrant hysteria.

Critics contend that the bill punishes legal residents, rewards illegal activity and violates federal immigration law which prohibits “undocumented immigrants from obtaining a postsecondary education benefit that U.S. citizens cannot obtain." Ten other states offer similar in-state savings and have based eligibility on where the student went to high school, not on immigration status. Similarly, the Maryland legislation applies to all students regardless of residency status.

As for rewarding illegal activity, the kids affected by this bill did not break the law - their parents did - but what parent wouldn't risk anything and everything to provide a better life for their children? There are approximately 2 million undocumented children living in the United States today - these children were born outside the United States, but brought here illegally by their parents at a young age. These kids were raised in America, educated in our schools, they are Americans. Many of theses kids would consider America to be their home country and their actual home country to be a foreign land. About 65,000 of these kids graduate from our high schools every year - and face a future of virtually no options. Punishing these kids for choices made by their parents imposes upon them an unwarranted penalty and burden.

I recently met one of these students - she was brought to America from Guatemala at age 8 by her parents. She is a junior at a Maryland high school and has a 3.9 GPA, by all measures she is an exceptional student. A Supreme Court ruling from 1982 grants her the right to be educated in a public school, but upon graduation she has no real options. She cannot return to the country of her birth, not only did she leave there when she was a child, she now has three siblings - all born in the United States and all legal citizens. The idea that she would be separated from her family and return to a country that she does not know makes no sense. She has lived in America longer than her young siblings, yet because they were born in the U.S. they can get in-state tuition, a driver’s license, and a job no questions asked. Would we not be better served by rewarding her ambition and academic acheivement, by investing in her, by providing her a real opportunity to become a legal resident? What good is accomplished by marginalizing her or forcing her to live in the shadows?

No one is served by making it harder for students such as this to attend college. In-state tuition is appropriate for these students as they truly are residents of the state, they are students in the public school system, and their parents - though here illegally - do pay state taxes (in fact, they pay more in taxes than the recieve in benefits). The list of requirements placed on undocumented students seeking in-state tuition are arduous and anyone willing to meet those requirements is certainly worth the investment. One can only hope that the Maryland House of Delegates has more backbone when it comes to this issue than they had on the question of marriage equality.