November 21, 2014
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Legislature should define benefits of illegal residency
Senator James C. Sheehan

The new policy granting illegal immigrant students in-state tuition rates – approved recently by the Board of Governors for Higher Education -- requires such students to have attended an approved RI high school for three (3) or more years; received a RI diploma or GED; and have signed an affidavit attesting they have applied or intend to apply for lawful citizenship.

While I believe there can be reasonable accommodations made for the undocumented children of illegal residents, I testified against the Board’s new policy because I did not agree with the means by which it was put into place. I also believe the new policy will adversely impact lawful Rhode Island students who could be displaced at state colleges or university by illegal immigrants, some of whom may have been in this state or country for as few as three years.

Redefining the benefits of illegal residency is an enormous policy change that rightfully should be decided by a state legislature as opposed to an un-elected body whose decisions may bear no resemblance to the sentiments of the majority of state residents. Indeed, this proposal already had been rejected by the General Assembly on a number of occasions in recent years. By approving the policy, the Board blurred the line between the executive and legislative branches. As such, this policy change was unprecedented, since the 12 other states that grant in-state tuition do so through acts of the state legislatures. As a consequence, the Board’s decision may invite a legal challenge. The 1996 federal law (Title 8, section 1621) that applies says a state can provide someone who is in the country illegally with state or local ‘benefit’ for which they would otherwise be ineligible only if the state enacts legislation to do so.

Proponents of in-state tuition say denying it is akin to punishing students for the illegal actions of their parents. Far from being punished, however, some “74 undocumented undergraduate students” attended one of our state’s three public institutions of higher education in 2009, according to the Latino Policy Institute. This illustrates that 1) illegal immigrants have enjoyed access to higher learning in Rhode Island in spite of their illegal status, and 2) even at the more expensive out-of-state rate, many illegal immigrants still chose to attend a state college or university. The Latino Policy Institute also reported “a total of 31 additional [illegal immigrants] students” would enroll at a state college or university if in-state tuition were made available to them. Assuming these figures remain relatively constant, approximately 105 illegal immigrant students may attend our state colleges or university. While admittedly not a large number, under the new policy illegal immigrants will now compete head-on for the same admission spots as lawful Rhode Island students. In my opinion, it is not fair to avail illegal immigrants the privilege of discounted in-state tuition while simultaneously closing the door on the rightful aspirations of some 105 young Rhode Islanders.

Benefits and privileges ought to be earned by people who play by the rules and obey the law. While we may have to recognize that some illegal immigrants, having spent 5 to 10 years in Rhode Island, may have truly become part of our American family, it is questionable whether three years is sufficient time to make such a transition of heart and mind. Indeed, even the proposed federal “Dream Act” which provides illegal immigrants a pathway to citizenship requires 5 years or more to become a citizen.

The issue, I believe, remains open to debate. But the issue should and ought to be answered by a vote of a duly elected legislative body.


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