States Move on Tuition Equity for Undocumented Students

Key fights in Colorado and Florida highlight the progress activists have made, and the challenges they're up against.

By Julianne Hing Feb 16, 2012

Despite tough economic times and a hostile political environment, immigrant rights activists are forging ahead, and having success, pushing a pro-immigrant youth agenda at the state level. And while many other pro-immigrant state policies fall to the wayside, state bills granting tuition equity to undocumented college students have yet to be sidelined. In fact, in several key states, they’re on the move. It may seem improbable, given the [anti-immigrant rhetoric]( which has spewed forth during the GOP primaries, and the devastation wrought by laws like [Arizona’s SB 1070]( and [Alabama’s HB 56]( Immigrants make for easy scapegoats when politicians want to unite their base on fear-based rhetoric. Yet immigrant youth will testify in the Florida State Senate today in their ongoing, uphill battle to reverse the state’s ban on allowing undocumented students and the U.S.-born children of undocumented immigrants from accessing in-state tuition. Meanwhile in Colorado, a tuition equity bill which would allow undocumented immigrant youth raised in the state to pay the same tuition as their fellow Colorado residents faces a possible House vote on Friday after having cleared the Senate with ease. Tuition equity bills have also been introduced in Arizona, Hawaii, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Virginia. Still other states, like New York, are pushing for bills to grant undocumented students access to financial aid and scholarships so they can pay for school. Because undocumented students are not considered residents of the states where they live, undocumented immigrant youth who get to college are charged out-of-state tuition prices that are sometimes three times what their resident student peers pay. In the 11 years since Texas passed the first tuition equity bill, a dozen states have passed similar laws to eliminate this disparity. Four states–Florida, Colorado, Georgia and Indiana–ban undocumented immigrants from accessing in-state tuition. And in Florida, it’s the immigration status of a student’s parents which determines what a student must pay to go to school. Even U.S.-born citizen children of undocumented students must pay out-of-state tuition. SB 106 is Florida’s attempt to rectify that. A bill which would have helped just the U.S.-born children of undocumented immigrants failed in the Senate but SB 106 would allow both undocumented students and U.S.-born students to pay in-state tuition. That bill is scheduled for a committee hearing later this week. Felipe Matos, a Miami-based activist and organizer with the Latino online advocacy group, acknowledged that the bill faces tough odds. The Hispanic Caucus has yet to come out in strong support of the bill, and Matos said especially because the Black Caucus has already come out in strong support of SB 106, the immigrant community has been especially disappointed in Latino lawmakers. "We are fighting against a supermajority in the Senate, a Republican governor who ran on bringing SB 1070 to Florida," Matos said. "But we cannot give up on our home. This is our lives." In Colorado, the picture looks rather more hopeful. "We’re so close to passing it this year," said Carmen Medrano, an organizer with the Metro Organizations for People, a Denver-based group that’s formed a coalition with other immigrant rights groups to win tuition equity this year. "It’s the first year where it’s so close I feel like we can actually touch it." Medrano said that activists are furiously trying to secure more Republican votes in the House, where Colorado’s ASSET bill is headed. In order to pass, the bill needs two Republicans to come onboard. They already have the commitment of one. There are two big reasons why tuition equity bills remain compelling policy that can still attract bipartisan support, says Tanya Broder, an attorney with the National Immigration Law Center who has tracked tuition equity bills across the country. The first is that tuition equity bills "work," Broder said. States reap the economic benefits when they encourage high-achieving students to continue their education. Fiscal impact studies of tuition equity bills show time and time again that allowing undocumented students to pay in-state tuition actually generates revenue for a state. Because undocumented immigrants are barred from accessing federal loans and grants, college can become prohibitively expensive, and often, students who can’t afford school simply don’t continue their studies at all. "And the other is that students themselves are not only organized and inspiring, but they have an appeal that crosses party lines," Broder said. Matos, who is undocumented, has another explanation: "The people who are mainly pushing for [tuition equity bills] are still undocumented youth, and undocumented youth are just relentless, you know?" Indeed, after the swell of an [aggressive national movement]( ended with the narrow, bitter defeat of the federal DREAM Act in 2010, activists pivoted to their home states to push a separate, smaller legislative agenda. Last year, Rhode Island passed a tuition equity bill. California activists won a bill that allows undocumented immigrant youth access to state-funded scholarships and beat back a repeal effort in the same year. "The appeal of the story of a child who has grown up in this country and thinks of it as her home, and her future is very difficult to look good arguing against," Broder said. That doesn’t mean some lawmakers aren’t still trying to do just that. "[T]he other part that bothers me is, why would we give favor to children of illegal aliens over children of legal, out-of-state, longtime American citizens?" Florida State Sen. Steve Oelrich in a hearing before the Senate version of the bill was killed, the [Tampa Bay Times]( reported. "That just wasn’t right." Activists say these sorts of arguments do not deter them, and that they’re ready for a multi-year fight. "Education is a human right," Matos said. "It’s different when you’re fighting for something because it’s right, versus when you’re fighting for something because it’s your life."