Educating illegal immigrants

The question of granting in-state tuition rates to illegal immigrants for public colleges and universities continues to vex lawmakers.

Should we punish children who, through no fault of their own, landed here when their parents came through back channels? Should we deny these students the ability to learn and lift themselves out of the inevitable low-income cycle they land in? Because they live here shouldn’t they have the same opportunity given their classmates who matriculate at state-subsidized schools?

Or are we rewarding parents who cheat the system, bringing their families here illegally and now tapping taxpayers to pay for their kids’ tuition for a better education than any they’d receive in their home country? Is it fair that an undocumented immigrant pays about $25,000 a year in tuition, room and board at the University of Massachusetts Amherst just because her parents found their way to Framingham while a US citizen born and raised in Virginia cuts a check for $42,000 for the same education at the flagship campus in Western Massachusetts?

A hearing at the State House Wednesday highlighted both sides of the hot button issue, with Democrats looking to expand access to in-state tuition for illegal immigrants while Republicans are seeking to cut off the aid altogether. In 2012, then-Gov. Deval Patrick allowed illegal immigrants who qualified under the federal “deferred action for childhood arrival” status to pay the in-state rate at Massachusetts’s 29 public colleges and universities. The status applied to students who came to the US with their parents when they were under 16 years old, lived here for at least five years, and either graduated from a US high school, received a GED here, or served in the military.

Hundreds of immigrant students, many wearing mortar boards, advocates, and educators packed a hearing of the Joint Committee on Higher Education on two Democratic bills that would allow illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition, whether or not they qualified under the federal status, as long as they lived in Massachusetts at least three years and graduated from high school here. The bills would also allow those students to get state financial aid, which they could use at either public or private universities. Even if they qualify for in-state rates, illegal immigrants are not eligible for federal or state financial aid.

The hearing also included testimony from Republican state Rep. Marc Lombardo on his bill to reverse Patrick’s order. Gov. Charlie Baker has said he supports Patrick’s decision to allow in-state rates to those who qualify under the federal guidelines, but said Wednesday he opposes any effort to expand it to all undocumented students who live here illegally.

Efforts to pass similar legislation in true blue Massachusetts have failed since 2002. At least 18 other states in the country, including conservative strongholds such as Texas and Kansas, allow illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition, while several others are considering legislation. Three other states have passed laws forbidding it. Alabama won’t even allow illegal immigrants to enroll in its community colleges.

In the Bay State, the numbers that are in play are not staggering, as they are in border states such as California, Texas, and Arizona. The Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation estimates 910 undocumented immigrants graduated from public high schools in the state last year, roughly the size of the combined graduating class of Newton North and Newton South high schools. The watchdog group says estimates allowing them to attend at the in-state rate would bring in about $7 million in new revenue to the schools because most of those students who would register are not enrolled.

But when it comes to illegal immigrants, it’s never been about the numbers. The issue is becoming a flashpoint in the presidential campaign, and the rhetoric will only get more heated.

State Sen. Linda Dorcena Forry, the Boston-born daughter of Haitian immigrants, is sponsoring one of the bills to open up in-state tuition for all. She says it’s a matter of economic and education equality, one that benefits all of the state. No one, she says, is getting a handout.

“When we talk about the economic vitality of Massachusetts, when we talk about the workforce, these kids are part of it,” she said on Greater Boston. “These kids are not getting extra benefits. They’re getting in on their own merits.”




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