Legislation Would Flatten Barriers for Undocumented StudentsBy Kristina Lane
WASHINGTON Under bills recently introduced by state and federal lawmakers, it would be significantly easier for some illegal immigrants to afford a college education — and for the colleges to afford the students.Two bills, one passed by the Texas state legislature and another introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives by Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah, would allow immigrants who have been long-term residents in this country to pay in-state tuition, which typically costs less than half what out-of-state tuition does. The legislation also would start the students on the path toward legal permanent residency.As it stands now, when community colleges, in particular, accept undocumented immigrants as in-state residents, they do so at their own expense, because state governments refuse to reimburse the schools for students who are not legal permanent residents.The alternative is to charge the students out-of-state tuition. According to the American Association of Community Colleges, the national average for in-state tuition at community colleges is $1,600 per year. The average out-of-state tuition is $4,000. The Texas legislation, sponsored by state Rep. Rick Noriega, would allow any graduate of a state high school to pay in-state tuition rates, provided the individual has resided in the state for at least three years and signs a waiver agreeing to seek legal permanent residency. The Noriega bill was sent to Gov. Rick Perry, who signed it last month.While resembling the Noriega bill, the Cannon proposal is more expansive.It would enable states to determine their own residency rules and let students who have lived in the United States for five years apply for legal permanent residency and attend college while they wait for their legal status to change.The Cannon legislation also would allow these students to qualify for Pell Grants and other loan money to help pay for tuition.Noriega said his impetus for creating the legislation came about when a constituent was having trouble coming up with the out-of-state tuition required by the Houston Community College District. The constituent, Rosendo Ticas, an undocumented immigrant who had been in the United States since the mid-1980s, was in the process of obtaining legal permanent residency. Noriega said Ticas’s dilemma illustrated a statewide predicament.“We have really top performers in this same scenario that work hard throughout their high school careers,” Noriega says. “They may or may not be in queue to become legal residents or citizens, so when they graduate, there is nowhere for them to go except to a low-paid, unskilled job.”After enlisting Noriega’s help, Ticas enrolled in the Houston Community College District and is now a certified aviation mechanic. Noriega pointed out that Ticas will contribute more to society and the Texas economy than he did in his previous work as the owner of a lawn-care business.Some critics of the legislation say it would siphon tax dollars from U.S. citizens and legal residents.“It is, after all, taxpayer money, and it raises the question, should taxpayer money go to non-citizens, particularly those here illegally and who violated U.S. immigration law?” says John Keeley, a spokesman at the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank that researches immigration policy. “I wonder what the sponsors of legislation in Texas and on Capitol Hill would say to American students who are denied that assistance and who have broken no laws.”But some people at community colleges see it differently.Dr. Bill Wenrich, chancellor of the Dallas Community College District, said the measures would not impose extra burdens on taxpayers.“These people (students) will stay in Dallas, and if they are not educated they are not going to pay taxes, and they are going to take tax money through social welfare or drug rehab,” Wenrich says. “We are better off putting money in education than the penal system … drug or gang prevention programs.”The legislation also would ease the financial burdens for three community college districts in Texas, including Dallas, Houston and the Tarrant County Junior College District. These schools have established their own residency requirements and allow illegal immigrants to enroll, charging them in-state tuition though the schools are not reimbursed by the state of Texas for those enrollments.Ana Barbosa, a computer science/engineering student at El Centro Community College in Dallas, said the Dallas residency requirement made it much easier for her to afford school. Before the policy was implemented, Barbosa paid $1,200 per semester; afterward, the price dropped to $324.Raul Gonzalez, an education policy analyst for the National Council of La Raza, said financial relief is critical to sustain community colleges in their attempt to do what they feel is best: offer education to all people within the community.“We don’t want these institutions to be harmed … instead they should be encouraged and receive support (from the government),” Gonzalez says.Barbosa said the legislation would help her continue her education at the University of Texas at Dallas, where she has been accepted. She is not able to enroll yet because she is waiting for the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service to process her residency application. Barbosa, who has a 3.85 GPA, says she applied for residency about three years ago, and that many of her friends have been waiting longer. “I could have been through with my bachelor’s degree and probably had my master’s degree started by now,” Barbosa says. Though she has completed her associate’s degree at El Centro, she continues to take classes there in preparation for her studies at UTD.Barbosa says one of her friends became so discouraged by the residency application process that she dropped out of school.“She was brilliant but … said the heck with it,” Barbosa says. “It was a loss for her but also a loss for the community. … Who knows what she could have done? But if the laws pass, maybe she’ll go back to college.”
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