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Tuition Law Praised, Attacked

Reaction: Giving undocumented students a break on college is backed by educators but opposed by an immigration reform group.


October 13 2001

As word spread Friday about the passage of a closely watched bill to make college more accessible for undocumented immigrants, reaction ranged from jubilation among some students and educators to anger from an anti-illegal-immigration group.

The new law, which will allow some illegal immigrants to pay the same tuition at state colleges as in-state students, is expected to have a small effect on colleges across California. But in areas with high concentrations of immigrants, such as Los Angeles, it is a different story.

High school counselors here say that enough promising Los Angeles Unified School District students are illegal immigrants to significantly boost the district's overall rate of college attendance among graduates. Many more students from high schools in poor neighborhoods may now attend college because of the new law, they said. Two current examples illustrate the extent of the issue in Los Angeles: School officials confirmed that at one of the city's large urban high schools right now, five of the top 10 students in the senior class are illegal immigrants. At another, the valedictorian this year is undocumented.

"We are excited" about the new law, said Miles Bonner, college counselor at San Fernando High School. "Inevitably, in our top 15% [of the senior class], there are usually about three students who are undocumented. . . . I could give you stories of kids coming in here and crying, saying they worked so hard and now they can't go anywhere."

"Oh, it's going to be great," said Garfield High School graduate Brenda Pintor, who qualified for the University of California but went to a community college because she lacked legal residency status, which she has since received.

Law Called a Burden on Taxpayers

However, the governor's decision outraged Barbara Coe, chairwoman of the California Coalition for Immigration Reform, who has long argued that the measure would result in an unfair burden on taxpayers. She called the new law "another welcome mat to more illegal aliens--and more terrorists." She said her coalition of groups will to try to persuade the next governor to reverse the decision.

Before passage of the bill, AB 540, sponsored by Assemblyman Marco Firebaugh (D-Los Angeles), illegal immigrants who were high school graduates could attend Cal State universities and community colleges but were charged the much higher out-of-state tuition, as foreign students are. At Cal State campuses, for example, undergraduate fees are $1,839 a year for residents and $7,380 for nonresidents.

Undocumented students continue to be barred from receiving financial aid.

The new law, which does not apply to the UC system, requires the students to have attended high school in the state for at least three years.

It also requires them to submit an affidavit saying they have filed or will file applications to the Immigration and Naturalization Service seeking legal residency status as soon as they can. According to a spokesman for Firebaugh, the affidavit requirement was crucial to winning the support of Gov. Gray Davis, who vetoed a similar measure in the past. He signed the bill Thursday.

However, some undocumented students have not sought legal status and have virtually no chance of obtaining it. Others have murkier interactions with the INS, such as one who said that his parents had sought residency but that the lawyer took their money without filing their papers.

At Roosevelt High School, college counselor Loretta Hultman said she was being cautious about raising students' hopes.

"I haven't really publicized this," Hultman said. "I want to make sure I understand it before I do that. I've had too many students in here crying in previous years, and I don't want to see that."

At Huntington Park High School, where more than 10% of seniors are illegal immigrants, an informal effort to determine who might qualify for in-state tuition under the bill found that nearly half would, said Linda Loya, college counselor.

"This is fantastic," she said. "Since the 1980s, we have always had students at the top of the class here that have been affected by their immigration status, and who have not been able to afford to go to universities. It is heartbreaking. . . . We use a lot of Kleenex."

The measure may help students such as Milton Hernandez Nimatuj, 17, a Huntington Park senior with an interest in botany and a 3.9 grade-point average. Although he lacks legal residency status, Hernandez was brought to the United States from Guatemala by his parents when he was 6, and his primary language is English.

His parents are housekeepers and could not pay out-of-state tuition, he said.

"I have always had in my mind that education is a human right," he said. "This is really wonderful."

Davis Accused of Caving In

Activist Coe said her group campaigned vigorously to defeat the bill, which she said is unfair to U.S. citizens who "can't afford to put their own kids through college but now have their taxes funding the education of lawbreakers."

She accused Davis of bowing to political pressure and said that, particularly in the terrorist attacks' aftermath, political leaders should be taking a hard line on immigration issues.

A call to the governor's office for comment was not returned.

But Firebaugh and legislative observers said Davis was willing to sign the bill because it was crafted to benefit only the graduates of California's school system. Also, it was not tailored for illegal immigrants, but for any student schooled here but unable to prove residency the usual way.

The measure was further aided by a changed political climate, Firebaugh said. Once viewed as a fringe issue pressed by a few left-leaning pro-immigrant organizations, in-state tuition for undocumented students had come to be embraced by a broad coalition of economic and social interest groups.

The bill was backed by, among others, the California Chamber of Commerce, all three state higher education systems and several key Republicans, Firebaugh said.

"We have moved away from the vitriol and ugliness of 1994 and Proposition 187," he said, referring to the controversial state immigration initiative of that year. "This issue was not about immigration, but rather about education."

Although UC was not included, that system's regents could implement a policy granting in-state tuition to undocumented students. Spokesman Brad Hayward said he expects the issue to be brought before the board in the future.

Cal State and community college officials said they expect some increase in the number of students attending college as a result of the law.

"I think we will see more students, but what number, I just don't know. Maybe 500 or so across the system--not a real, real large number," said Cal State spokeswoman Colleen Bentley-Adler.

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