A bill introduced by Republican Sen. David Vitter would prevent all states from offering in-state college tuition rates to illegal immigrants unless residents from other states are given the same break.
With more states opting to give tuition breaks to immigrant students who graduate from in-state high schools, Vitter, of Louisiana, says his proposal would keep states from "exploiting a loophole" in the law.
"We should be supporting policies that help American students get an opportunity to go to college and compete for good jobs," Vitter, chairman of the Senate Border Security Caucus, said in a statement announcing his bill, S. 1990.
"American students should always come first," Vitter said. "Too many states are blatantly disregarding the spirit of existing immigration law, which could end up putting illegal immigrants ahead of American citizens."
Currently, under federal law, states may offer in-state rates to illegal immigrants only if they offer such breaks to all Americans. But some states are circumventing the law by offering in-state tuition to any in-state high school graduates, without inquiring about their immigration status and without offering it to nonresidents.
Vitter's bill, introduced earlier this month, would strip that option, and all out-of-state students would receive the same in-state tuition break as illegal immigrants.
But the bill would affect the budgets of many state universities that count on higher out-of-state tuition rates from those who are not state residents.
Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Washington-based Foundation for American Immigration Reform, defended Vitter's proposal, noting that the senator was "trying to go back to the law's original intent."
Mehlman said that U.S. students should not be forced to compete with those who are here illegally, and that parents of those students should be held accountable for breaking the law.
"There are a finite number of seats at public universities," Mehlman told Newsmax.
Michelle Asha Cooper, president of the Institute for Higher Education Policy, told Newsmax that it is a worthwhile goal for the nation to recognize the potential of immigrant students, many of whom have been in the United States for some time and have already navigated the K-12 system.
Those students have likely faced many hurdles by learning a new language and culture and dealing with social and economic uncertainties, so assisting them if they want to better their lives through education is a laudable goal, Cooper said.
Instead of focusing on recruiting international students for certain jobs in the United States, she said, we should take notice that "we have a viable pool here" and should try to empower those who hope to learn more and change their circumstances.
"The issue — and it's not one I agree with — is people feel we have a pot. There's only so much picking from the pot we can do when it comes to financing college. The price is expensive, and it's really about a scarcity of resources, and that fear of what happens if there is not enough for me and mine," Cooper said.
"That is the driving force behind much of this: how do you take limited resources and continue to shift and slice them so that there can be more access?"
Cooper said she supports higher education's opening its doors to students who don't deserve to be penalized.
"Undocumented individuals are already here, and they want to work," Cooper said. "Why would we close our doors on higher education when our K-12 institutions have had their doors open the whole time?"
Cooper added that many people incorrectly think the illegal student population across the country is entirely Latino.
"They're not. Depending on where you live in this country — if you're in the West, it could be Asian students, if you're in the Midwest, it could be African refugees, and if you are in the South, it could be people from a variety of Caribbean islands. Our undocumented population is far more diverse than I think many politicians realize."
Cooper said 17 states have provisions to support in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants and others are moving in that direction.
Proponents of giving immigrant students stronger access to college dispute Vitter's characterization that states are using a "loophole" in the law.
"It is often stated that these states are 'getting around' the federal law, or that they are taking advantage of a 'loophole' in the federal law. This is slanted language," said the National Immigration Law Center in Washington.
"The law is very specific. It does not preclude states from providing in-state tuition to undocumented residents of the state, as long as nonresidents in similar circumstances also qualify. The states that have passed in-state tuition laws are complying with this law, not getting around it," the NILC said on its website.
As Congress considers taking up the issue, at least one Florida lawmaker says he is set to offer a proposal that would allow undocumented students in-state status at colleges and universities if they attended three years of high school in the Sunshine State.
State Sen. Jack Latvala, a Republican from Clearwater, was expected to announce his bill this week, the News Service of Florida reported. Such bills have previously been blocked by the Florida Senate.
"I don't know that it's just important in an election year. I think it's important for Republicans to be inclusive, not exclusive. We need to reach out to all folks," Latvala told The News Service.
"In this particular case," he said "we're talking about children who really weren't responsible for the decision that their parents made as to where they lived and how they got there. I don't think that penalizing them by making them pay more is a fair way to approach that."
In Washington state, lawmakers last week passed a bill offering illegal immigrant students access to need-based college financial aid.
"This bill ensures that the young men and women we've invested in at our high schools, and who aspire to become productive American citizens, will now have fair access to the financial support they need," Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee said in supporting the $5 million measure, which is expected to cover about 1,000 undocumented prospective college students.
Mehlman says the trend to grant in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants will continue. California, he noted, approved such in-state benefits in the early 2000s, and its state Supreme Court upheld the tuition grants as lawful. With the recent passage of the law in Washington state, others are likely emboldened to follow suit, Mehlman said.
"You've got a number of other states that were probably inclined to do this and now see Washington as a green light."
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