Currently, 12 states — including Texas, California, New York, Illinois and Massachusetts — have laws that extend in-state tuition to undocumented students. Most were put in place since the federal DREAM (Development, Relief and Education of Alien Minors) Act — which would have established temporary legal residency for undocumented students who came to the country as minors and who were pursuing higher education or military service — was first introduced in Congress in 2001. Variations on the DREAM Act have been considered by Congress at least five times since then, but none has passed, with the failures mostly due to Republican concerns that it would constitute an amnesty program.
In response to the DREAM Act stalemate and stories of young immigrants being arrested and deported to countries they only knew as children or infants, the Obama administration announced their Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) plan last summer.
The plan, which began accepting applications last August, allows young people brought to the U.S. when they were under the age of 16 who are currently in school or high school graduates to request a temporary two-year exemption from deportation and apply for a work permit and a Social Security number. As of January 2013, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services had accepted 394,533 applications for Deferred Action, though Pew Hispanic Research recently estimated there are up to 1.7 million undocumented students in the U.S. who are potentially eligible for the program.
Though Deferred Action has allowed many undocumented students to emerge from the shadows and talk about their experiences in public for the first time, there is still the barrier of economics, including the requirement that undocumented residents brought to Arkansas as children pay out-of-state tuition.
In Arkansas, one legislator working to close at least part of the tuition gap for undocumented students is Sen. Joyce Elliott (D-Little Rock). Elliott is drafting a bill that would extend in-state tuition rates to any student who has gone to school in Arkansas for three years and who graduates or receives a GED, regardless of immigration status. For undocumented students, that could slash their tuition costs in half. Elliott said her bill, for which she is seeking a Republican co-sponsor, will specifically avoid the issue of immigration status as a way of keeping the state law from running afoul of federal law. "That is what assures us that we don't provide anything to anyone that's undocumented that we don't also provide to a [native-born] student," she said. "The federal law absolutely requires that. That's the same kind of standard that the other laws around the country meet, and not a single one of them has been overturned."
Elliott plans to introduce the bill in the legislature by late February, and said she is hopeful about its chances, even though she introduced a similar bill in 2005 — a bill which had the backing of Republican Gov. Mike Huckabee — and another in 2009. In 2009, the bill failed by one vote in the Senate, which Elliot called "heartbreaking." Elliott said she believes the bill has a shot this time, even with Republicans controlling the House and Senate, because the public has come to understand that education is not about politics.
"We have generally not made educating our kids or having access to education a partisan issue," she said. "We need to recognize that no matter who it is, they're going to be in our state and they are and it's in our interest for them to be educated."
Elliott said that holding young people responsible for being brought here by their parents doesn't make sense to her. She calls it "a human issue."
"What law do we have in place that specifically punishes kids for the actions of their parents?" she said. "It might come about as a byproduct of something parents have done — parents in prison, for example. But there is not a policy in place that says if your parents go to prison, you won't be allowed to go to school. But in this case, we are holding children accountable by an actual policy for the actions of their parents. And that's unfair."
Elliott said she sees achieving greater access to higher education by undocumented students in the same light as the struggle to integrate public schools during the days of Jim Crow. In that way, she said, getting her bill passed is both an economic and personal issue for her. "I just can't ever forget when I was a kid I was a part of trying to find a way through these policies deliberately designed to make education unequal," Elliott said. "I was never as a child able to make sense of that: Why is there a school right here, and nobody wants me to be there?"
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