Of all illegal immigrants, young people who were brought to the US as children have been the ones most likely to win concessions from the public. But the recession appears to be changing that, driving sentiment against educational benefits for undocumented college students.
Some states are explicitly refusing to allow undocumented students to pay in-state tuition fees at colleges, reversing a previous trend. In-state tuition tends to be two to three times less than what out-of-state students pay.
Since 2006, four states – Georgia, Oklahoma, Colorado, and Arizona – have made undocumented students ineligible for in-state tuition rates. In Arizona, the ban came through a voter initiative after legislation was vetoed by the governor.
By contrast, between 2001 and 2006, 10 states – among them California, Kansas, and New York – passed legislation awarding in-state tuition rates to undocumented students. The issue is current again in California, where a new bill would let undocumented students qualify for financial aid.
The economic downturn may be a factor in the recent shift. "Obviously, one of the biggest concerns for middle-class families right now is how to get their kids through college and how are we going to pay for this," says Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), which advocates reducing immigration. "A large portion of middle-class America sees this as a real threat to the interests of their own kids."
Complicating the issue is an older federal law that says states can't make in-state tuition available for undocumented students unless they do the same for citizens from anywhere in the US. California, Kansas, and other states have faced lawsuits contending that they are violating this federal law. The California case was defeated, but the Kansas one is still on appeal.
Amnesty or investment?
Last week, Senator Durbin and Sen. Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana introduced the Development Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, a bipartisan measure to make it easier for undocumented students to become permanent residents if they came here as children, are long-term US residents, have good character, and attend college or enlist in the military for at least two years.
"Our current immigration laws prevent thousands of young people from pursuing their dreams and fully contributing to our nation's future," Durbin said in a statement. "These young people have lived in this country for most of their lives. It is the only home they know. They are American in every sense except their technical legal status."
But variations of this federal bill have been rejected before, with opponents charging that the measures amount to amnesty that rewards illegal behavior and encourages illegal immigration.
"These bills have not sat well with average middle-class taxpayers in this country, given the fact that every state university in the country is in trouble," says Mr. Mehlman.
However, the 10 states that have allowed undocumented students to qualify for in-state tuition have "not experienced a large influx that 'displaces' native-born students or added financial burdens to their educational systems," says one study. The 2007 report by the research arm of the American Immigration Law Foundation (AILF) also said that education would help these undocumented students pay more in taxes.
Some states – Connecticut, Missouri, New Jersey, Oregon, and Rhode Island – recently have proposed laws to give in-state tuition to undocumented students. Colorado also is pondering reversing its ban.
The Americans for Legal Immigration Political Action Committee (ALIPAC) said it is stepping up its campaign to halt the bills in these states. The group, which has stopped such bills before, shows polls to lawmakers indicating that 80 percent of respondents oppose in-state tuition for illegal immigrants.
It also uses a network of Internet bloggers and radio talk shows to keep the issue alive. "If enough people are informed about these bills before they pass, a backlash is created which makes them fail," says William Gheen, president of ALIPAC.
California's dream act
The debate over undocumented students extends beyond tuition fees. In California, where illegal immigrants are allowed to pay in-state rates, a separate bill on financial aid was introduced recently by state Sen. Gil Cedillo (D) of Los Angeles.
The so-called California Dream Act would allow undocumented students to compete for financial aid at public colleges and universities in the state. About 25,000 undocumented students graduate from California high schools every year, according to Senator Cedillo's office.
The bill has passed the Legislature three times before but has been vetoed by the governor each time, says Cedillo's office.
Myrna Ortiz, a sophomore at UCLA who came to the US from Mexico as a child, is one student who would benefit from Cedillo's bill. She was forced to take the winter quarter off after running out of money. Her father is a mechanic, her mother a volunteer, and her undocumented status means she can't find work easily. She has an internship with a local immigrant-rights group, but that doesn't pay much either.
"We've been here our whole lives, and all we want to do is contribute back," says Ms. Ortiz.