Editor’s note: This article is part of a continuing series focused on upcoming education issues that will be addressed by the 89th General Assembly.
When the General Assembly meets in January, Sen. Joyce Elliott (D-Little Rock), will try for the third time to pass a bill assuring in-state college tuition rates for certain undocumented immigrants who came to America as children.
The bill would make those rates available to anyone who attended school in Arkansas for three years and graduated from an Arkansas high school or earned their GED in Arkansas, regardless of their immigration status.
Under federal law, college benefits cannot be conferred on undocumented immigrants that are not available to other Americans. Elliott’s bill would make the in-state rates available to all students. So, for example, an American citizen meeting those qualifications but now living in Oklahoma would be eligible.
In 2008, at Gov. Beebe’s request, Dr. Joe Purcell, then the director of the Arkansas Department of Higher Education, sent a memo to the state’s public colleges and universities informing them that undocumented students could be admitted to public colleges and universities. However, they should not receive a better tuition rate than American citizens not from Arkansas. Moreover, he wrote that those students would not be considered when the state provided funding based on enrollment figures.
Then-Attorney General Mike Beebe wrote in a 2005 advisory opinion that Elliott’s bill that year did not violate the U.S. Constitution. However, he wrote, a court might determine that the school attendance provision violated federal law because it gave undocumented students a benefit not available to non-resident American citizens.
The department tracks the immigration status of Arkansas’ public colleges and universities. From summer 2008 to fall 2010, there were 252 undocumented students attending public higher education institutions in state.
Out-of-state rates typically are twice in-state amounts. Undocumented students also are not eligible for state-sponsored scholarships.
Elliott tried to pass the bill as a representative in 2005 and again in 2009 as a state senator. The bill passed the House in 2005 but fell one vote short of passing a Senate committee.
“I’ve tried this twice before, and I’m just hoping people are finally at a point now they realize these kids are here, they’re ours, and it’s up to us to be responsive to make sure they’re contributors to the future, and that they have the opportunity to do so,” she said.
Rep. Debra Hobbs (R-Rogers), a member of the House Education Committee, said she perhaps would favor a rate somewhere between in-state and out-of-state amounts.
“It is a benefit, so we’re actually adding benefits to those who did not go through the proper channels to be here,” she said. “And I understand the parents brought them, and I think we need to have a healthy debate about it, instead of being so polarized with our thinking, and see if there’s something that will work. But I can’t help but think about the people that are in line following the law trying to get into our country.”
Dr. Joel Anderson, University of Arkansas at Little Rock chancellor, testified in favor of Elliott’s previous bills. He said in an interview that, by federal law, undocumented students are given a taxpayer-financed education through the 12th grade and will likely remain in the state as adults, so it’s in both their interest and the state’s interest to help them be productive residents.
“It’s just the right and decent thing to do for youngsters,” he said.