States, Colleges and Faculty Grapple With The Question of Higher Education & Illegal Immigrants


by Jan Murphy

Karina Ambartsoumian wants to go to college but her “statelessness” is putting that out of reach.

The 24-year-old “dreamer” is not recognized as a citizen of any country, even though she has lived in Philadelphia for years. Being stateless means she must pay out-of-state or international tuition rates to attend a Pennsylvania public college.

Those rates can be as much as two and a half times what a resident student pays.

According to a new Quinnipiac poll “The inability to afford college, attain a driver license, own property, travel and open an account, a bank account, have been real barriers in my life,” Ambartsoumian said, in perfect English. “I’m not asking for special treatment. I’m asking for equal treatment.”

She came to the state Capitol today, along with other undocumented students or “dreamers” as they called themselves, to urge lawmakers to pass the Pennsylvania Dream Act.

This act would allow eligible undocumented students to pay in-state tuition rates at the 14 state universities, 14 community colleges, Penn State, Pitt, Temple, and Lincoln universities. It also would make them eligible for state grants.

To be eligible, undocumented students would have to have attended at least two years of high school since 2007-08 or graduated or earned a GED since 2009-10.

Thirteen other states have passed such laws. Natasha Kelemen, executive director of the Pennsylvania Immigration & Citizenship Coalition, estimates the legislation could impact as many as 15,000 undocumented students initially.

A spokesman for the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, which comprises the state universities including Shippensburg and Millersville, said they are reviewing the legislation. “Until we have the opportunity to do so in detail, we really can’t say how it would affect our universities,” said spokesman Kenn Marshall.

Ambartsoumian said this legislation is not about giving undocumented students a free college education. Rather, she said they are asking for the same opportunity Pennsylvania students have.

Senator Lloyd Smucker, a Republican from Lancaster County, who is sponsoring the bill, said today’s job market makes post-secondary education increasingly important. “Yet, dotted throughout our yearbooks and intermingled among out high school attendance rolls, there continue to be students who have been told by the gatekeepers that only some things are possible for them,” Smucker said.

“Their potential is limited because they lack the necessary proof that they are as much a part of our communities as our friends and neighbors.”

Meanwhile, in Arkansas, Democratic state Senator Joyce Elliott sponsored the controversial bill that would grant in-state tuition rates to anyone who has attended an Arkansas high school for at least three years. It also requires that the student have an Arkansas high school diploma in the state. In-state tuition is about twice as cheap as out-of-state tuition.

“This is a bill to expand education opportunities for every student in the state,” Bill Kopsky, executive director of the Arkansas Public Policy Panel, said in an interview. “This is a human rights issue. These students by no fault of their own are here and they should be able to realize their potential.”

The Arkansas Chamber of Commerce endorsed the bill. Arkansas Democratic Governor Mike Beebe has not said whether he will sign the bill if it reaches his desk. The bill faces stiff opposition from some Republicans, which control both legislative chambers, as well as tea party activists, who see the bill as an immigration issue.

Similarly, in North Carolina, State Representatives George Cleveland and Chris Whitmire, both Republicans, proposed a bill on March 5th that could make it harder for undocumented students to seek higher education at community colleges and universities in North Carolina.

If the proposed bill, House Bill 218 titled “No Post-Secondary Education/Illegal Aliens,” is passed, it could overturn current policies that allow students with unlawful immigration status to attend community colleges and universities.

Currently, undocumented immigrants can attend North Carolina universities and community colleges by paying out-of-state tuition costs and meeting criteria such as attending high schools in the United States.

Abraham Dones, the assistant director of multicultural affairs, has worked with undocumented students in the past. Dones said the proposed legislation could hinder undocumented students.

“Legislation like the one proposed just provides the opportunity to place these students on pathways that, to me, will not lead them to success,” Dones said. “What other avenues are we providing these specific students with regards to becoming a better qualified member of our society? I was always at the notation that an educated society is always a better society.”

Future illegal immigrants would no longer be able to pursue their education at universities like N.C. State or other UNC-System schools. The bill doesn’t only focus on UNC System institutions but it also looks to expand the same admission restrictions to illegal immigrants seeking higher education at any North Carolina community college.

In the beginning of April, Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber has made it official — undocumented immigrants will be able to attend public colleges in the state at the same tuition rates as other residents.

After signing the measure, Kitzhaber declared: “My friends, the dream has become a reality.”

Starting next school year, undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children and graduated from an Oregon high school will pay the subsidized college tuition charged to Oregon residents. That’s a savings of about $20,000 a year. The measure applies to the state’s seven public universities.

Still, affording college would be a challenge for many families because undocumented immigrants would remain ineligible for state and federal financial aid.

Proponents say young people shouldn’t be priced out of college because their parents chose to immigrate illegally. Critics say the state shouldn’t be subsidizing a college education for people who violated immigration laws.

The debate in the state Senate offered a glimpse of the contrasting views in Oregon — as well as nationwide — on the issue of giving a break to undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as minors.

“The people who were generally opposed to this are an older generation who believe in the rule of law and in the Constitution,” said Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend, who voted against the bill, according to the Statesman Journal. “I believe they need to be represented today.”

In Indiana, legislators there are reopening the debate about whether the children of undocumented immigrants should be allowed to pay in-state tuition. Two years after banning the children of undocumented immigrants from paying in-state tuition rates at the state’s public universities, Indiana legislators are debating whether to roll back that prohibition.

The Republican-controlled Senate has already passed a bill that would partially roll back the ban, to cover students who started college when the 2011 law went into effect.

But now, some members of the House Committee on Education, including its influential Republican chairman, Representative Bob Behning of Indianapolis, want to clear the path to college for more immigrant children.

Behning wants to expand Senate Bill 207 to allow the children of undocumented immigrants to pay the same tuition rate at the state’s public universities as other Indiana residents do.

Under an amendment he proposed Thursday in committee, those children would have to meet certain conditions to qualify. Among them: They’d have to start attending high school in Indiana as a freshman, graduate on time with at least a C average, and have no criminal record.

Where do Americans stand on the issue of immigration? The majority of Americans think undocumented immigrants should be allowed to stay in the U.S. and apply for eventual citizenship. Fifty-nine percent of Americans say this comes closest to describing their views. This shows an increase in support; two months ago, a previous Quinnipiac poll found 56 percent of those polled shared this view.

Only 11 percent say those without legal documentation should not be allowed a path to citizenship. A quarter of those polled — 25 percent — think undocumented immigrants should be required to leave the U.S.

The poll found a plurality of support for a path to citizenship regardless of race, religion and education.

In terms of race, support for a path to citizenship is 73 percent among blacks and 72 percent among Latinos polled.  Broken down by religion, 57 percent of Catholics polled support a path to citizenship; it was 51 percent for Protestants.

Sixty-six percent of Americans with a college degree say undocumented immigrants should stay and eventually become citizens, and 56 percent of those without a college degree support this too.

Broken down by partisan affiliation, 73 percent of Democrats and 54 percent of Independents support allowing undocumented immigrants to stay and pursue a path to citizenship; the figure is 47 percent among Republicans.

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