Should Colleges Enroll Illegal Immigrants?

A new front line in the immigration debate: access to higher education.

Preshika, an undocumented immigrant student, studies for law school in her bedroom in California.

Preshika, an undocumented immigrant student, studies for law school in her bedroom in California.

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She was a national finalist for a prestigious science award and graduated as the valedictorian of her high school class. Now, a senior at a public university in Illinois, she is poised to graduate in the spring with a degree in bioengineering and a 3.84 grade-point average. Despite her impressive academic credentials, Cecylia faces an uncertain future. A native of Poland, she has resided in the United States unlawfully for most of her 21 years. Unless federal immigration laws change and allow undocumented students like her to become legal residents, she won't be able to put her degree to use and work as an American engineer.

For this woman and other undocumented students, who asked not to be identified by their full names for fear that they or their families could be at risk, graduation day—whether it's high school or college—is filled with worry. While a 1982 U.S. Supreme Court decision entitles illegal immigrants to a free education from kindergarten through high school, neither Congress nor the courts have figured out what to do with the estimated 65,000 undocumented immigrant students who graduate from high school each year once they decide to attend college. Resolving the question of their access to higher education ultimately depends on a federal decision on whether—and how—to move the estimated 11 million-plus illegal immigrants in the United States toward proper citizenship status. A proposed federal law called the Dream Act would enable undocumented students who have attended U.S. schools and met other conditions to gain legal status and qualify for some student aid. But, so far, the meas-ure has failed to win enough support in Congress, leaving states to cobble together their own policies for handling these students in higher ed.

Statewide ban. Some legal scholars believe the federal government has already made a stand. In 1996, Congress passed a law barring states from giving unlawful residents "postsecondary education benefit[s]" that they don't offer to U.S. citizens. But since then, state legislatures in Illinois, Kansas, Nebraska, Utah, and six other states have waived out-of-state tuition fees for illegal immigrant students.

The pressure for a firm federal decision is building, though it doesn't appear Congress will address the issue soon.

Heightened concern about the slowing economy and illegal immigration already has led some states to close the doors of higher education on undocumented students. This summer, South Carolina became the first state to ban such students from all of its public colleges and universities. Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, and Oklahoma have also drawn a line in the sand and now deny illegal immigrants in-state tuition benefits. Supporters of these policies say that scarce education dollars should be spent on making college more affordable for U.S. citizens, not illegal immigrants. "At a time of economic hardship for so many Americans, we need to worry about American students," says William Gheen of Americans for Legal Immigration Political Action Committee.

Gheen's group has vigorously opposed colleges offering admission and discounted tuition to undocumented students in fast-growing North Carolina. On August 15, the state's 58 community colleges will consider whether to remove or continue a ban on illegal immigrants. Community college officials adopted the ban in May after the state attorney general's office advised them that admitting unlawful residents conflicted with federal law. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has since told the state that federal law does not bar colleges from admitting illegal immigrants. Immigrant-rights groups are now urging North Carolina's community colleges to once again open their doors to all students.

Advocates of open access say it's cruel and wrongheaded to deny undocumented students higher education and an opportunity to obtain legal status. They argue that these students would ultimately pay more taxes and make greater contributions as professionals and citizens. Jacqueline, a native of Mexico who has lived in North Carolina since she was 8, says undocumented students like her should not be punished for their parents' actions. "So unless they literally kick me out," the 20-year-old says, referring to the pending decision by the community colleges, "I won't leave." Jacqueline says she wants to become a teacher one day and help immigrants learn English. Graig Meyer, who heads a mentoring program for students in the area and has taken Jacqueline under his wing, says: "We have a huge teacher shortage in the state. And [Jacqueline] is exactly the type of student we should be encouraging to go to school."