Immigrant tuition cut advancing
By Aurelio Rojas Bee Capitol Bureau (Published June 24, 2001)
They are an odd couple, brought together by a political issue that tugs at hearts - even if minds are harder to move.
Rico Oller is a conservative state senator, a self-proclaimed mountain man, who believes government programs are a magnet for illegal immigrants.
Arturo (not his real name) is an undocumented immigrant who will graduate this week with a straight-A average from a high school in Oller's district, which stretches from Roseville to South Lake Tahoe.
The son of a trash collector and a waitress, Arturo has lived in California most of his life and wants to attend a state college. But he can't afford the exorbitant out-of-state tuition he would have to pay because of his immigration status.
Under a proposed law, non citizens who attended high school in California for three years would be eligible for the much-lower resident tuition rate and financial aid at California State University and community colleges.
Oller met recently with Arturo and calls him a "great kid the kind of person we like to have." But the lawmaker said he can't support the measure - AB 540 - that would open college doors to Arturo.
"I told him I'd help him with college myself," said Oller, a father of four who owns a business and a large spread near San Andreas.
Oller opposes AB 540 because he believes "it sends a pretty strong signal down south 'Just come up here, and even if you break the law, we're going to provide for you.' "
Assemblyman Marco Firebaugh, the Los Angeles Democrat who introduced AB 540, believes such arguments are losing political steam as anti-immigrant fervor wanes in California.
"It wasn't until the bad economy and anti-immigrant vitriol of the early 1990s that we barred these students from our public colleges," Firebaugh said.
Until then, undocumented immigrants were allowed to attend California colleges as state residents. All they had to do was have good grades and prove they had lived in the state for a year and one day - the same standard used for other students seeking resident classification.
When Firebaugh tried to turn back the clock last year, his bill was vetoed by Gov. Gray Davis, who cited conflicts with federal law.
The latest bill - which Firebaugh believes addresses the governor's concerns - sailed through the Assembly and is expected to clear the Senate. This week, backers plan to introduce a Republican co-author, Assemblyman Abel Maldonado of Santa Maria - like Firebaugh, the son of Mexican immigrants.
The pressure is mounting on Davis to change his mind, Firebaugh said. He points to Texas, where Gov. Rick Perry recently signed a law that permits children born outside the United States but who attended high school in Texas to pay in-state college tuition.
Firebaugh said U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige told him at a recent dinner in Los Angeles that he and President Bush support such a policy.
"It would be ironic that a Republican president, whom we didn't support, would back a policy change that a Democratic governor, whom we did support, opposes," said Firebaugh, chair-elect of the Democrats' Latino caucus in the Legislature.
Mexican President Vicente Fox inserted himself into the debate during a tour of California in March, urging the United States to remove the barriers blocking undocumented immigrants from attending college.
A 1982 U.S. Supreme Court ruling required public schools to educate undocumented children, concluding children should not suffer for the actions of their parents.
But after high school, students are on their own. The legalization process can drag on for years, and stories abound of undocumented honor students - valedictorians, yearbook editors, top-flight athletes - whose college dreams have been deferred or destroyed.
"This closes the door right in their face," said a teacher who urged Arturo to pay Oller a visit. Like her student, the teacher requested that her name not be used.
"These kids are not criminals," she said. "They've done everything right, passed calculus and other advanced courses, and we're punishing them for something their parents did. It's a small percentage of kids we're talking about; we're not opening floodgates."
Supporters of the measure argue the parents of these children pay taxes, too, and their labor plays an important role in the state's economy. They also note that these students could help address the shortage of skilled workers in California.
But Barbara Coe, chair of the Orange County-based Coalition for Immigration Reform, calls Firebaugh's bill "blatant discrimination against legal immigrants and U.S. citizens."
"It's rewarding people for violating our federal immigration laws," said Coe, whose organization co-sponsored Proposition 187, which cut state services
to undocumented immigrants. "The cost for a legal resident of another state who attends a California public college is many times more."
But supporters counter that the proposed law sets a longer residency requirement for undocumented students - three years in a California high school vs. one year and one day of living in the state for legal residents.
At California State University, nonresidents pay as much as $9,219 a year, while the average in-state tuition is $1,839. Even at a community college, the costs are far higher - $3,900 vs. $330.
The Legislature does not set policy for the University of California system - where the difference is $14,043 a year vs. $3,429 - but Firebaugh's bill requests that the UC regents review their policy.
Arturo was surprised when he found out he wouldn't be able to afford a state college. Hopelessness, he said, eventually gave way to despair. But he is refocused now.
"For as long I can remember, I've been interested in space travel," said Arturo, who wants to study aeronautical engineering.