Illegal immigration is one of those issues that is guaranteed to generate a debate. As a country, we couldn’t be more torn up about it. On one hand, there seems to be something inherently amiss about extending public benefits to those who blatantly violate the law and come onto the land illegally. Furthermore, we simply don’t have the funds in our economy to support them.
On the other hand, we recognize that we are a nation of immigrants. And for many of us, the issue strikes even closer to home, as it is our relatives and close family friends who are the illegal immigrants in question today. Furthermore, as a country we recognize the value that immigrants can bring to our nation, and how investing in them now will pay off in the future.
Well, aside from all the activity going on in Arizona, this issue has reared its head again, now in the state of California. Basically, the California Supreme Court recently ruled that state universities and colleges can continue to extend the in-state discounted tuition exemption to illegal immigrants, as long as the students attended high school in the state.
This ruling is the first of the kind in the nation, and it is expected to influence other states as well. Nine other states also have legislation in place that allow for illegal immigrants to pay the in-state tuition rate. Two of these states, Texas and Nebraska, are dealing with a similar challenge to their laws, and the cases are currently pending in the lower state courts.
There has been a great deal of outcry on this ruling, from both sides. Initially, it does seem unfair “bad” behavior is being rewarded with a tuition exemption. This is especially frustrating when you consider that this tuition exemption doesn’t apply to those immigrants who are actually, legally here. However, upon deeper research, here’s why I don’t think this ruling as unfair as it initially seems.
First of all, this law actually applies to several classes of students, not just illegal immigrants. Technically, the requirement is that the law applies to “any student,” as long as the student is not lawfully here as an immigrant. So while it does include illegal immigrants, it also includes other classes of students. For example, they can be citizens who attended high school in California, but then whose families moved elsewhere. They can also be students who are citizens of another state, but who moved to California to attend high school or boarding school here.
Furthermore, most of these exemptions will end up applying to students from the latter two categories, rather than illegal immigrants. The numbers show that right now, about 41,000 students qualify for these exemptions, but many of them are actually United States citizens. One study shows that of these students, only 25,000 of them are illegal aliens. In another study, 2,019 students paid the exempt-rate at UC schools for the 2008-2009 school year, but only about 600 of these students were undocumented aliens.
Additionally, legislative notes show that the main motivation behind the statute was not to benefit illegal immigrants specifically. Rather, the legislators knew that many students have been in the California school system for many years, since elementary and middle school, and simply wanted to extend this education to them all the way through college. This intent is made clear by looking at the wording of the legislation itself, which states the requirement that students must have attended high school in California for three or more years.
Also, the thinking was that if a student has been a long-term California resident, the student (or rather, the student’s family) would have already paid state taxes and should be able to benefit from the tuition exemptions. Additionally, the legislators recognized that in cases of illegal immigrants, most are waiting for their applications to be processed, and are expected to become citizens.
Thus, I believe that upon deeper research, the statute may not be as unfair as it initially seems. However, there are still good arguments to be made on the other side for repealing the statute. One of them is that this statute actually conflicts with federal law, which states that illegal immigrants cannot receive college benefits based on residency and not offered to all citizens.
So while this ruling is monumental in that it sets a precedent for the rest of the country, it will probably not be the end of the matter either. The case is expected to be appealed to the United States Supreme Court. Only time will tell how this immigration issue, and the immigration debate in general, will end up playing out in our country.