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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While an overall crackdown on illegal immigrants in North Carolina has caused some families to flee the state, undocumented students there and elsewhere say they have no intention of returning to their birth countries. Mark, a native of the Philippines who has lived in rural Illinois and California since the age of 5, has grown up a typical American teenager. He listens to the Red Hot Chili Peppers and roots for the St. Louis Cardinals. "English is the only language I speak," says the 25-year-old, who lost legal status after overstaying his visa. "I couldn't see myself ever going back."

Like other illegal students, Mark lives in a state of limbo. He's working to pay for community college classes while waiting for Congress or the courts to take action. To raise awareness about their plight, Mark and other "Dreamers," as undocumented students call themselves because of their hope for Dream Act legislation, have sent letters and made calls to members of Congress. They have also forged strong communities online, where they tell their stories and sometimes raise money for their education.

Facing uncertainty about how their citizenship status will affect their chances of getting a job, some undocumented students currently enrolled in higher education are staying in school longer and, in some cases, pursuing postgraduate degrees. Preshika, a 23-year-old undocumented immigrant from Fiji who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, is considering law school while she waits for a green card. In Cali-fornia, she and other graduates of the state's high schools are exempt from paying the steep out-of-state tuition fees that would otherwise discourage many of them from going to college. She already has two degrees: a bachelor's in political science and a master's in international relations.

Tuition lawsuit. But California and other states are now under heavy pressure to repeal in-state tuition benefits for illegal immigrants. Kris Kobach, a law professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, represents a group of students who are suing California. Their suit alleges that California is violating a 1996 federal law that prohibits states from favoring illegal immigrants over U.S. citizens. California's tuition rate for out-of-state students is about four times the in-state tuition that undocumented students living there are eligible to receive. According to Kobach's calculations, California taxpayers spend $200 million every year to subsidize the in-state tuition of an estimated 25,000 undocumented students enrolled in the state's public colleges. A judgment in favor of Kobach and his clients might force California to reimburse out-of-state students and drop its in-state tuition policy for illegal immigrants. An appeals court is expected to issue an opinion on the matter soon.

Zan Brennan, the mother of a 2005 graduate of the University of Kansas, says it's an outrage that illegal immigrants in states like California and Kansas can claim in-state tuition while U.S. citizens from neighboring states must pay higher fees. In 2005, her daughter, Brigette, unsuccessfully sued Kansas after being told she would have to pay out-of-state tuition even though she went to a Kansas high school. The reason: Her family lived on the other side of the state border, in Kansas City, Mo.

Cecylia, the undocumented student from Poland, remains hopeful that a new president and federal lawmakers will support a pathway for students like her to become legal residents. Her professors have encouraged her to pursue graduate school. But Cecylia shows little enthusiasm for the idea. For her, graduation day could be bittersweet.