Tuition and illegal immigrants

For the last seven years, illegal immigrants attending California’s public university and community college systems have been eligible for in-state tuition rates. The thinking behind this practice was that, regardless of their parents’ actions, children had no choice in crossing the border illegally; academically gifted immigrant students shouldn’t be condemned to a permanent underclass.

Last week, however, a state appellate court ruled that California was violating Congress’ intention of barring illegal immigrants from a benefit reserved for legal residents. The decision sends a class-action lawsuit -- brought by out-of-state students who contend that they have been required to pay higher, nonresident fees while illegal immigrants pay in-state tuition -- back to Yolo County Superior Court. It also presages the end of higher-education opportunities for thousands of motivated students.

Congress’ intent does seem clear. The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 reads, “An alien who is not lawfully present in the United States shall not be eligible on the basis of residence within a state (or a political subdivision) for any postsecondary education benefit unless a citizen or national of the United States is eligible for such a benefit.”

California sought to skirt this law by granting in-state tuition to all students who graduated from and attended a California high school for at least three years.

Foes of illegal immigration, who argue that generous benefits encourage lawbreakers to come to California, will rejoice at the decision. And we acknowledge the inherent contradiction of providing a public benefit to students whose parents presumably don’t pay any income tax to help pay for it.

Nonetheless, we believe that California’s law is in the state’s best interest. By law, states must provide K-12 education to illegal immigrants, and it’s counterproductive to then erect roadblocks to further advancement for our best and brightest. Studies show that investing in education for immigrants pays off. Assuming they remain in California, their economic contributions more than make up for the cost of subsidized college tuition within a few years. Forcing them to wallow in permanent poverty, by contrast, is a drain on taxpayers -- as well as being flat-out immoral.

California is one of nine states providing in-state tuition to illegal immigrants, and given the absence of leadership from Washington, we don’t fault any of them for attempting to address the educational, economic and social needs of the populations within their borders. The real problem is not the states’ violation of congressional intent, but Congress’ failure to follow the trail blazed by the states.