This morning I am thinking about higher education for Dreamers, students who were brought here as young children by their undocumented parents, students who have grown up in our communities but who have been relegated to the shadows without protection of significant rights by law. The term “Dreamer” comes from the name of the law to protect their rights—a law whose passage these young people have been seeking now for almost two decades, the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act.
I first learned about the academic challenges these students face nearly twenty years ago from a high school counselor in Arizona who explained to me that the valedictorian at her school could not qualify for in-state tuition or a college scholarship to a public community college or university in her state. Neither could such a student qualify for a Pell Grant or a federally guaranteed college loan. The counselor was beside herself; she didn’t know where to turn to find help for this student. At that time the lack of protection for these students was unknown to me, and I was shocked.
Since that time, eighteen or so states have created their own laws to allow these students to matriculate with their peers (and pay the same tuition) at their state colleges and universities. But the right is still regularly contested as legislators try to block these laws and as they are tested in court.
To protect undocumented young people from deportation, President Barack Obama established the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program in 2014. To qualify, a young person must have arrived in the United States before 2007 and have met several other conditions. Although President Obama protected Dreamers from deportation and created their right to drivers licenses and work permits, however, under federal law he was unable to establish their right to in-state college tuition or federal student loans or grants.
On Monday of this week, the problem of a state’s denial of in-state college tuition once again made the news. The Arizona Supreme Court upheld an appeals court decision denying Dreamers’ right to Arizona in-state tuition. The Washington Post‘s Samantha Schmidt reports: “The Arizona Supreme Court on Monday ruled that young immigrants protected from deportation under an Obama-era program will no longer be eligible for in-state tuition at the state’s public colleges. The court unanimously agreed with the Arizona Court of Appeals, which ruled that federal and state laws do not allow Maricopa Community Colleges to grant in-state tuition to Deferred Action for Childhood recipients, also known as ‘dreamers.'”
The difference between in-state and out-of-state tuition will prevent a number of students from continuing their education. Schmidt explains: “The decision means that Arizona college tuition costs could double or even triple for DACA recipients. In-state tuition for the next school year at Arizona State University, for example, is $9,834, while nonresident tuition is $27,618…. Arizona residents pay $86 per credit hour at the Maricopa Community Colleges, while nonresidents pay $241.”
In a short update from Fronteras, Jorge Valencia explained on Monday: “The unanimous ruling from the seven-member court stems from a lawsuit brought by the Maricopa Community Colleges District, which wanted to give in-state tuition to students who had been brought to the country illegally as children.” Maricopa County encompasses greater Phoenix.
In a policy brief, Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education (NASPA), explains federal law as it applies to in-state tuition for Dreamers. According to NASPA, the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) denies the right to in-state tuition. The language is confusing: “(A)n alien who is not lawfully present in the United States shall not be eligible on the basis of residence within a State (or political subdivision) for any postsecondary education benefit unless a citizen or a national of the United States is eligible for such a benefit… without regard to whether the citizen or national is a resident.” This statement would seem to mean that any state with different in-state and out-of-state tuition rates could not grant in-state tuition to a young person who is a resident of the state but who lacks U.S. citizenship.
NASPA then explains how a number of states states have justified their policies that do grant in-state tuition to Dreamers: “(S)tates have argued that in attempting to stipulate tuition requirements, the federal policy infringes on a fundamental right of the states, and a number of states have instituted policies which determine state residency regardless of immigration status, using instead location of high school attendance as the primary indicator.”
The National Conference of State Legislators (NCSL) explains further: “Supporters of the legislation argue that the requirement to receive in-state tuition is based on high school attendance and graduation, not residency, and so it is not in conflict with IIRIRA.”
In a 2015 policy brief, NCSL identifies 18 states which have, since 2001 granted in-state tuition for undocumented graduates of their states’ public high schools: California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Kansas, Maryland, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas, Utah, Washington, and Wisconsin. In the same document, NCSL names three states that have at one time or another specifically prohibited the granting of in-state tuition for undocumented students who are graduates of their high schools: Arizona, Georgia, and Indiana. NCSL adds, “Alabama and South Carolina go one step further and prohibit undocumented students from enrolling at any public postsecondary institution… At lest five states—California, Minnesota, New Mexico, Texas and Washington—allow undocumented students to receive state financial aid.” Some states have given their Boards of Regents permission to grant in-state tuition; these include Rhode Island, Hawaii, and Michigan. Virginia’s attorney general has granted in-state tuition to students enrolled formally in DACA.
The National Conference of State Legislatures adds that the right to free public K-12 education was guaranteed in a 1982 decision of the United States Supreme Court: “Due to the landmark 1982 Plyler v. Doe U.S. Supreme Court decision, states are required to provide all students with K-12 public education, regardless of students’ immigration status. Although the court did not declare education a fundamental right, it was determined that a ‘public education has a pivotal role in maintaining the fabric of our society and in sustaining our political and cultural heritage; the deprivation of education takes an inestimable toll on the social, economic, intellectual, and psychological well-being of the individual, and poses an obstacle to individual achievement.’ ”
I believe this is a moral issue. What kind of society would deny the kind of basic rights we all take for granted to young people who have lived for almost their entire lives in our communities? These young people are our own children’s peers. In the language of the decision in Plyler v. Doe, doesn’t the deprivation of higher education also take an inestimable toll on the social, economic, intellectual, and psychological well being of the individual, and doesn’t higher education also play a pivotal role in maintaining the fabric of our society and in sustaining our political and cultural heritage?
The Washington Post‘s Schmidt reminds readers that the news about the Arizona Supreme Court’s denial of in-state tuition “also comes as the DACA program as a whole is in limbo. The Trump administration planned to phase out the program and rescind work permits for hundreds of thousands of DACA recipients beginning March 5. But federal district judges in California and New York issued nationwide injunctions blocking these plans.” President Trump made full-funding for his border wall a condition Congress must meet before he claimed he would sign a bill extending DACA, but when Congress promised the funding, the President changed his mind and demanded all sorts of further restrictions on legal immigration. Dreamers face an unknown and precarious future.