Hanging in the Balance: Federal Legislation May Chart New Course for States Considering Whether to Grant In-State Tuition to Undocumented Immigrant Students

Article excerpt

While advising Los Angeles-area high school students on their higher education plans, Ivna Gusmao, a counselor at Reseda High School in the San Fernando Valley, has long counseled hope to those struggling to make it into college. She has tailored that advice to include poor and working-class immigrant students lacking citizenship status. This spring at the predominantly Hispanic school, Gusmao has worked with more than 20 college-bound undocumented immigrant students out of a graduating class of 500. In all, as many as 200 graduating seniors will attend a four-year college next year, she says.

"I know of two undocumented seniors whose families moved to Las Vegas this past year, and I told them they needed to graduate from a California high school to qualify for in-state tuition rates,' Gusmao says. "Both students made arrangements to remain in Los Angeles so they could graduate here this spring."

With California being only one of 10 U.S. states allowing undocumented immigrant students to attend public institutions at in-state tuition rates, academically ambitious immigrants like the ones counseled by Gusmao have slowly trickled into the state's higher education system. Demographer Jeffrey Passel, in a nationwide 2003 analysis, estimated there were between 7,000 and 13,000 illegal immigrant students enrolled in public colleges and universities. By some estimates, U.S. high schools graduate about 65,000 undocumented immigrant students every year.

Experts say college attendance by undocumented students would be much higher if they didn't have the added burden of financing public education at out-of-state or foreign student tuition rates. And because of their undocumented status, they are unable to quality for federal, and in many cases, state financial aid.

Is Federal Legislation the Answer?

Immigration advocates say the brightest hope for undocumented students could result from passage of federal immigration reform legislation that would ease their path to legal residency. As of mid-May, the comprehensive immigration reform bills in both chambers of the U.S. Congress included provisions of the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act of 2007, a legal residency bill that has languished in past Congresses.

"The DREAM Act would make it easier for young people who aren't U.S. citizens to attend college. Passing the DREAM Act will give more of our children an opportunity to succeed" says U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.

According to DREAM Act provisions, students who have completed high school and at least two years of college or military service could obtain permanent legal residency. Another key DREAM Act provision would reverse a 1996 federal law that prohibits a state from offering in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants unless that state offers it to all of their enrolled U.S. citizens.

Despite the 1996 statute, California, Texas and eight other states have enacted laws allowing undocumented students to pay in-state college tuition provided they had at least graduated from a high school within that state. There are 20 additional states that unsuccessfully have attempted to pass such legislation in the last several years.

Melissa Lazarin, the associate director for education policy at the National Council of La Raza, calls the DREAM ACt a pathway to citizenship. "It provides a pathway for individuals who came here as children and have grown up [here]" she says. "It actually doesn't provide instate tuition. What it does is make it easier for states to provide instate tuition if they so choose."

Observers say more states may allow undocumented students to qualify for in-state tuition if the 1996 law is reversed by the DREAM Act.

"There are examples of states, such as Minnesota, where state education leaders have not acted on the issue because of the federal restrictions that the DREAM Act addresses. …