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Undocumented students get caught in immigration debate crossfire

Posted on 03.27.2013

An Indiana State Senate Education and Career Development Committee vote in favor of undocumented students being allowed to pay in-state tuition has spurred recent protests in Indianapolis and has inspired renewed debate on the topic.

An array of laws concern undocumented student tuition and college education. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Indiana is one of four states that have a law that prevents undocumented students from getting in-state tuition rates. Twelve states allow undocumented students to get in-state aid. In two states, South Carolina and Alabama, undocumented students are not allowed admission to state universities. The other 32 states have not taken a specific stance on the subject.

Professor of History and Political Science Maryam Stevenson said that if states do not have laws about this, it is left to the institutions to decide the level of tuition assistance they wish to offer undocumented students.

Financial Aid Director Linda Handy said that at the University of  Indianapolis, like other Indiana schools, undocumented students are admitted but only considered for certain types of aid.

“We admit the students and they are considered for merit aid. But beyond that, they cannot file the FAFSA, which means that they cannot get federal and state funds that other students are eligible for,” Handy said.

Director of Admissions Ron Wilks said that undocumented students are rare at UIndy because of the financial limitations associated with not receiving federal and state aid. Not receiving government aid can make UIndy’s $24,420 price tag impossible to afford.

“We see students get to a point [in the admissions process] and then just being able to cover that gap [in aid] is in most cases, insurmountable,” Wilks said.

Wilks said that whether undocumented students want to attend UIndy or another school, they are limited in their choices.

For example, paying out-of-state tuition at some universities can be more expensive than UIndy. Wilks said that beyond getting the funds for freshman year and the admissions process, undocumented students may find making it to graduation difficult.

“The challenge isn’t just getting them to enroll, but [getting] them to graduate, which is the important thing, because they have to cover that gap for four years,” Wilks said.

Stevenson said that like most issues that surround tax payer funding, allowing undocumented students to get in-state tuition is a controversial issue. Beyond just taxes, a misconception exists that undocumented immigrants  are not paying their fair share.

“The majority of these individuals do pay taxes themselves. But there is a public perception that what they pay with regard to what they receive is skewed,” Stevenson said. “And whenever we talk about illegal immigrants being funded with tax dollars, we get this contention.”

Stevenson said that much of the controversy about undocumented immigrants stems from U.S. political history and how immigration policy has been dealt with in the past. She said that unlike the policies of other countries such as Canada, U.S. immigration policy has been more focused on reunifying families rather than importing skilled labor to revitalize the economy.

“As a result of focus on family reunification over economic shortage, our public perception is much different as a whole,” Stevenson said. “Rather than seeing immigrants as a benefit, we have seen them, as a public, as a drain on the economy.”

Stevenson said that because of this negative perception of immigrants, Congress has found acting on immigration difficult, whether about skilled labor or undocumented immigrants. One proposal that has garnered both support and objection is the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act.

This DREAM Act has been iterated in several forms; one form was introduced to Congress in 2009. According to The DREAM Act Portal, had the act passed, undocumented immigrants ages 12-35 would have been able to apply for Conditional Permanent Residency if they had entered the U.S. as child 16 years of age or younger, had resided in the U.S. for five consecutive years, had graduated high school or earned a GED and were of good moral character. The status would have been contingent on the applicant completing two years of a college education or serving for two years in the military within six years of receiving Conditional Permanent Residency.  After 5 1/2 years, the applicant would have been able to apply to become a legal permanent resident.

Stevenson said that the push behind the DREAM Act exists because there is no legal  path to citizenship for those who immigrated to the U.S. as children.

“There is no current process. That’s the kind of debate behind the DREAM Act,” Stevenson said. “The argument is that these individuals came here innocently and were not complicit in the process; they were too young to make that decision on their own; and that there should be some kind of process available to them.”

Though the DREAM Act is not yet a reality, Deferred Action is an alternative that will allow a lesser version of some policies to be put in place. According to the Department of Homeland Security website, Deferred Action will allow individuals who immigrated to the U.S. as children, that do not pose a risk to security and meet several criteria, to be safe from the threat of removal.

The Deferred Action criteria are similar to those outlined in the 2009 DREAM Act but have an extra requirement of a minimal criminal record. According to the DHS website, only individuals who have not been convicted of a felony, multiple misdemeanors or a significant misdemeanor charge will be considered for Deferred Action.

Applicants who can prove that they meet all of the outlined criteria will be accepted for Deferred Action on a case-by-case basis. Applicants who are accepted will receive Deferred Action for two years and can reapply biannually.

A February 2013 Reuters poll found that more than half of U.S. citizens polled believed that all or most undocumented immigrants should be deported.

Stevenson said that conservatives often argue that giving undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship, or even legal or conditional permanent residency, would give rise to even more illegal immigration.

“The argument is that it would open the door to further undocumented immigration down the line and that we should not ‘reward’ this type of illegal behavior,” Stevenson said.

Whether Americans favor or oppose allowing undocumented students residency status, those students are in the U.S.  and will remain so unless action is taken to remove them. In the meantime, Wilks said that UIndy is looking for ways to attract Latino students, no matter their status.

“There is definitely an awareness that we need to be a university who reaches out to the Latino population because that is the largest, fastest growing pipeline of students,” Wilks said. “We have to come up with ways that we can attract, enroll and graduate those students of the future whether they are documented or undocumented.”


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