Supporters of the Dream Act, which would provide a legal framework toward citizenship for undocumented students, were in Fort Smith on Monday (Jan. 28) to speak to members of the League of Women Voters.
Mireya Reith, executive director of Arkansas United Community Coalition, said passage of the Dream Act, first proposed in the Senate in 2001, was essential to providing students of all legal status an equal education.
"It's a piece of legislation and an effort that really ensures equality for all of our students here in Arkansas," she said.
Reith said there were more than 9,000 students in Arkansas who would be impacted by passage of the Dream Act. Proposed federal legislation could provide a pathway for students to stay in the United States legally, she said.
But legislation would also be necessary at the state level to ensure students who graduated from Arkansas high schools could attend Arkansas colleges and universities without paying out-of-state tuition, Reith added.
"A policy was put in place here in Arkansas (in 2008) that forced the universities to verify the status of individuals and only accept a valid social security number when looking at individual's applications and specifically whether they would be eligible for in-state tuition," she said.
Lidia Mondragon, a junior pre-med biology major at the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith, was salutatorian of her class when she graduated from Waldron High School. She is among the more than 9,000 undocumented students across Arkansas paying higher tuition even though they graduated from Arkansas high schools.
Mondragon said tuition for a typical student would pay a total of $25,000 in tuition for a four-year degree at UAFS. But for a single semester at UAFS, she said it costs her family nearly $10,000.
"My parents work 12 hours a day, seven days a week to pay for my college," she said through tears as she explained that she was going to school with a goal of one day becoming a doctor.
According to a preliminary draft of the legislation by Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, titled "The Postsecondary Education and Economic Development Act of 2013", students such as Mondragon who have lived most of their lives in Arkansas, shown academic ability and have graduated from an Arkansas high school would be able to attend state schools paying in-state tuition versus the out-of-state rate currently charged to undocumented students should the bill pass both houses of the state legislature and be signed into law by Gov. Mike Beebe.
Reith said she expects the bill to be filed sometime in February with bipartisan support.
"We believe there is bipartisan support," she said. "Part of the delay is to cultivate those co-sponsors."
FEDERAL SOLUTION FIRST
But some Republicans are not showing support for the proposed bill.
Clint Reed, former executive director of the Arkansas Republican Party and a partner at Impact Management Group in Little Rock, said providing in-state tuition to undocumented students should not happen without an immigration solution at the federal level, such as new legislation proposed today by Republican U.S. Sens. John McCain and Marco Rubio that would provide a pathway to legal status without leaving the country.
"I'm not saying they should never have the possibility to receive those benefits, I'm just saying they should go through the federal system first," Reed said.
Reed said he believes the Republican Party must become more inclusive of immigrants in order to continue to grow locally and nationally, but he said the party should not get behind passage of legislation such as Elliott's proposed bill.
"I'm not in support of (the bill)," he said. "Generally speaking, how do we get comprehensive immigration reform done in a compassionate way without saying we're just going to spend tax dollars, which is how I view Sen. Elliott's bill."
Mondragon has said regardless of what comes of the proposed Arkansas legislation, should she be successful in her pursuit of becoming a doctor, she will still be unable to work legally in the country she has called home since the age of seven without passage of the Dream Act or other comprehensive immigration reform at the federal level.
And returning to her home country of Mexico is not an option, she said.
"I do not remember my home country," Mondragon said. "[I've] grown up here. This is home now."