In the September 22, 2011 Fox News-Google GOP Primary Debate, Texas Gov. Rick Perry stated, “If you say that we should not educate children who have come into our state for no other reason than they've been brought there by no fault of their own, I don't think you have a heart. We need to be educating these children, because they will become a drag on our society.” His defense of the current Texas law that allows undocumented students to receive in-state tuition stands out amongst a slate of Republican nominees eager to demonstrate their anti-immigrant bona fides.
So, what does Texas law actually say? Section 54.052 of the Texas Education Code states that an individual qualifies for in-state tuition if he or she:
1) has lived in Texas for three years before graduating or receiving a GED from a Texas high school, and
2) has also lived in the state for a year prior to enrollment in college.
In 2001, the law authored by Rep. Rick Noriega passed easily, with 157 legislators supporting the measure and only five members of the Texas Legislature voting against it.
Amid the controversy over illegal immigration, the issue of undocumented children and their access to college has received increasing attention from policymakers across the nation. This year alone, both Illinois and California passed legislation granting access to in-state tuition for undocumented state residents and, in California’s case, state financial aid. Over the last few years, undocumented teenagers have protested in Senate offices and dozens of students have publicly announced their immigration status at great personal risk.
Given the current situation in Texas and the United States, the Texas law and others like it make economic sense. According to the Immigration Policy Center, each year 65,000 undocumented students graduate from high schools across the country. Yet, an analysis of college attendance among undocumented high school graduates between the ages of 18 to 24 shows that only 49 percent are in or have attended college, while the comparable figure for U.S.-born residents is 71 percent.
Giving these young people, many of whom are from low-income families, access to in-state tuition rates may mean the difference between attending college and not. Indeed, the Texas Comptroller found that in the fall of 2001, 393 students attended Texas institutions of higher education using the provisions of the new law, and by 2004 that number had increased nearly tenfold to 3,792.
Research shows the dramatic economic advantage of higher education, not just for individuals, but the community as a whole. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports the median weekly earnings for a U.S. high school graduate are $626, while those of an individual with a bachelor’s diploma earn $1,038 and a PhD received a median weekly income of $1,550. That rise in income translates to greater individual and family stability, higher tax contributions and increased buying power.
A recent study by researchers at Columbia and Queens College, CUNY found that over a lifetime college graduates contributed $44,300 in taxes to the state, while a high school dropout had a negative $4,300 impact on state finances. The fiscal advantages for the federal government were even greater, with a $198,800 lifetime contribution from college graduates compared to a $61,600 for high school dropouts.
Still, it is important to note that the Texas law and those like it are not enough to see these positive economic impacts realized. Despite their educational attainment, undocumented individuals who graduate from Texas colleges and universities are currently unable to legally work in the United States.
The federal Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act would change that. The DREAM Act allows undocumented high-school graduates or GED recipients to obtain conditional lawful permanent resident (LPR) statusif they have been in the U.S. for at least five years and were younger than 16 when first entering the country. They can remove the conditional aspect of the LPR status within 6 years if they complete at least two years of college or join the military. Without the DREAM Act, the economic promise of students receiving Texas in-state tuition cannot be fully realized.
The Texas law and the DREAM Act seek to provide a pathway for productive membership in American society to a group of individuals who came to this country through no fault of their own. They have completed high school and want to attend college, raise a family and live the American Dream. It makes sense economically and morally to give them that opportunity.
Texas policymakers did the right thing in 2001 and Perry did the right thing in defending that action. It is clear from his opposition to the federal DREAM Act that his support has political, not policy, limits. Still, with immigrants serving as a perpetual scapegoat, especially in the current economy, it was a difficult stance to take.
Current calls for the governor to change his mind are short-sighted. While undocumented children may be an easy target for frustration, good policy is not based on anger, but careful consideration of the situation at hand.
Given the facts, granting access to in-state tuition for undocumented students simply makes the most economic sense for Texas. Still, without the federal DREAM Act, these children will be left in limbo, highly educated and capable, but unable to legally exercise their talents. Instead of using this fact as an argument against state legislation, it should be a primary reason to pass the federal bill.