A small but critical addition to a Missouri budget bill may keep the children of undocumented immigrants from attending state public universities by raising their tuition to the amounts international students pay. Now, those students are fighting the law by asking Governor Jay Nixon for help.
New language in the bill affects ‘Dreamers,’ who are covered under the federal government’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. The program allows undocumented individuals who came to the country as children to stay in the United States so long as they meet certain requirements. Missouri’s bill changes the state legal status of DACA students, which may restrict universities' abilities to offer them in-state tuition or scholarships.
State Rep. Scott Fitzpatrick, who sponsored the bill, said that it was meant to clarify state funding policies for universities. The DACA program complicated the process, he said, by labeling its students ‘lawfully present’ when federal lawful presence is not the same thing as lawful status in the state. The bill changes ‘lawfully present’ to ‘unlawful immigration status.’
“Potentially, the illegal students were being charged a more favorable rate than other in-state students from Missouri, that are Missouri citizens,” Fitzpatrick said.
He was particularly concerned with Missouri’s A+ Scholarships, which had no qualification that students be U.S. citizens. “There are a lot of citizen-students who don’t have access to [these] scholarships,” Fitzpatrick said, including private-school students and homeschooled students.
Relative access is not the point, said Vanessa Crawford-Aragón, executive director of the Missouri Immigrant & Refugee Advocates. “Right now, we’re talking about dozens of students across the state who are trying to figure out if they’re going to be able to start school next week.”
DACA students are counting on lower tuition rates that they are eligible for, she says, because they went to Missouri high schools, were accepted into the universities, and their parents work and pay taxes to the state.
Karissa Anderson, advocacy advocateof the Scholarship Foundation of St. Louis, agreed. “No matter the views on immigration reform…the timing and the method in which it’s has been enacted is just wrong,” she said. “For the students, it’s inhumane; the colleges are confused, the students are confused; I mean, school starts in two weeks, and people are scrambling, and students don’t know what to do.”
Fitzpatrick said that the bill should not be so confusing for universities, as they had come to the legislature for guidance on how to fund undocumented students before. He alleged that colleges and universities had not made it clear that they were already giving DACA students preference on tuition. “If the colleges and universities had come to me and said, ‘look, we already have some of these students in here’…I would have accommodated those students with the language. But I was never made aware of that by any of the higher education institutions.”
He emphasized that universities can still charge DACA students in-state tuition; they just cannot use state funding to do so. “The budget bill does not prohibit in-state tuition. It just prohibits the dollars that we appropriated from being spent with the university who supplies in-state tuition to those students.”
Still, the way in which this language has been worked into the legislative process has come under criticism.
“To be sure, our organization has opposed changes to the way students are qualified for in-state tuition in standalone statutory bills, and will continue to oppose that,” Crawford-Aragón said. “But this language was actually put through the budgetary process because they couldn’t pass the bill through the regular legislative process.” In this way, she said, the bill is an “end-run” on normal legislative procedure.
Naomi Carranza, an incoming freshman at St. Louis Community College-Meramec, expressed frustration that the change of language has raised her tuition cost. “I’ve been working since I was 16 and I’ve been saving up since I was 16, when I first got my DACA status,” she said. “I’m trying to move forward, and everyone wants to keep me going backwards.”
Anderson noted that Carranza’s experience is not unique. “The students, they’ve done what they were supposed to do. They went through school, they got the grades, they put forth the effort, they’re ambitious—and they deserve the same opportunity for access [to] higher education as the rest of us.”
“Like I said, I’ve worked hard,” Carranza said—and so have her fellow DACA students. “We love to study. We want to move forward. We want to be someone in life. And for us to be able to do that, we want to go to college.”
Fitzpatrick framed the bill as concerned with proper resource distribution, not as punishment for DACA students, but he did note that the bill was sponsored with an eye to the future of immigration in Missouri. “I think the more we project that we’re going to provide benefits, whether it be in-state tuition or scholarships or any other benefit, for students who came here or remain here illegally, I think that that’s just going to worsen the illegal immigration problem that we have.”
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