Birdwell bill targets non-US citizen tuition at Texas colleges

State Sen. Brian Birdwell
State Sen. Brian Birdwell
State Sen. Brian Birdwell

By Lowell Brown
Waco Tribune-Herald via Associated Press

Edilsa Lopez is 22 years old, about to graduate from college and fielding several job offers.

She credits her success to her work ethic — she has held two jobs to support herself and three siblings — and a 12-year-old Texas law that lets people like her pay a lower, resident tuition rate at public colleges and universities.

Lopez is an undocumented immigrant, a group that no longer would be eligible for resident tuition under several bills before the Texas Legislature. She sees the bills as short-sighted, saying an educated workforce is good for the state and country.

“I would tell them it really gives us an opportunity,” said Lopez, a student at the University of Texas at Austin. “We really just want to succeed. We want to educate ourselves. Eventually, it’s going to be good for the economy, good for our families and good for the United States if we can get a college degree and put it into action.”

A state law passed with overwhelming support in 2001 lets some non-U.S. citizens, including undocumented immigrants, pay the in-state tuition rates. State Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, filed Senate Bill 437 this month to make people in the country illegally ineligible for the lower rates, after failing to pass a similar measure in 2011.

State Reps. Bill Zedler, R-Arlington, and Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio, have filed similar bills in the House.

Birdwell, whose district includes Waco, said constituents complain the current law allows illegal immigrants to take seats at universities that legal residents otherwise would fill. He called his bill “an affirmation of citizens and lawfulness.”

“The bottom line is that my first duty is to citizens and to not place citizens at a disadvantage, particularly at a disadvantage to those, regardless of motivation, that have violated the law,” Birdwell said. “To me, that is the essence of what we’re dealing with here, that by virtue of law we place noncitizens, particularly unlawful citizens, at a position of advantage over the citizen. That’s what I think most people are frustrated with.”

Immigration reform

The debate comes as Congress works to develop comprehensive immigration reform legislation and as some Republicans try to distance themselves from proposals that could alienate Hispanic voters, a growing voting bloc in Texas and key battleground states.

Texas legislators have filed fewer anti-illegal-immigration bills so far this session compared with 2011, which observers say may indicate a waning appetite for the measures in light of the November election results. Hispanics supported President Barack Obama over Republican challenger Mitt Romney by 71 percent to 27 percent, according to the nonpartisan Pew Hispanic Center.

Larson, the Texas House member, has said he saw little chance his bill would pass this session, the Amarillo Globe-News reported. He did not respond to an interview request.

Gov. Rick Perry has defended the existing law, even as it drew criticism from Republican primary voters during his failed presidential bid. Perry has not said whether he would veto a bill to revoke the law, but he told the Texas Tribune last fall he doubted such a bill would reach his desk.

Birdwell said his focus is on citizenship, not politics.

“Citizenship knows no ethnicity,” he said.

Texas was the first U.S. state to pass a law letting undocumented students pay in-state college tuition rates. Eleven other states now have similar measures.

Under the Texas law, as amended in 2005, the students can qualify for resident tuition if they meet certain criteria, including graduating from a Texas high school or receiving a GED in Texas, living in the state for at least three years before graduation and pledging to apply for permanent resident status as soon as possible.

More than 18,600 undocumented students qualified for in-state tuition under the law in fiscal year 2011, representing about 1 percent of total enrollment, according to the most recent figures from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. Texas spent nearly $13.8 million to support those students’ education that year through formula funding to the universities, according to state estimates.

The same students can apply for state financial aid under the tuition law, and about 2,800 of them received a total of $11 million in state-supported grants in 2011.

Research shows the laws are working to get more undocumented immigrants into college in Texas and other states, said Vanderbilt University public policy professor Stella M. Flores, who has studied the issue extensively.

“We’re at a stage where we have more quantitative analysis of whether the policies work or not,” Flores said. “They’re all showing very similar outcomes. When you have a policy in place for these students to take advantage of in-state tuition, they’re more likely to go to college.

“If we’re thinking about the effectiveness of a public policy and why it was passed, we’re actually seeing that it worked the way it was intended to work,” he said.

Local students

Locally, students at Texas State Technical College and McLennan Community College would feel the results of any change in the law.

At the four-campus TSTC system, 128 undocumented students are paying in-state tuition rates, including 101 at the Harlingen campus in South Texas and 26 in Waco, the system reported.

At Waco’s MCC, 77 students who are not U.S. citizens or permanent residents pay in-state tuition, according to the school, which could not confirm how many of those students are undocumented.

Critics say revoking in-state tuition would punish children for their parents’ decisions to bring them to the U.S. illegally. Many of the students have lived in the U.S. most of their lives, said Barbara Hines, a University of Texas law professor involved in drafting the state’s 2001 tuition law.

“Denying this population education is not going to make them leave because, really, they don’t have another place to go to,” said Hines, co-director of the UT law school’s Immigration Clinic. “This is their home. So why would we want a group of people living in our state that want to get educated and can’t?”

Lopez, the UT-Austin student, has spent her college years pushing for political action to create more opportunities for undocumented students. And that often means telling her story.

She was brought to Brownsville from Guatemala at age 13 by a stranger who said he would take her to her mother, who had left home for the U.S. some time before. In reality, she was being kidnapped, she said.

She escaped after several grueling months of forced labor and little food, sneaking out of a hotel room when a captor was asleep, and eventually found an aunt in Houston, where she spent her teen years and graduated high school, she said.

Money issues

When she wanted to go to college, a counselor told her it was unlikely because she had no money. But she made it happen, scraping together cash from work, scholarships and a former high school teacher who wanted to see her succeed, she said.

She will graduate this spring with a degree in business and international relations. Thanks to Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, she will get to live and work in the country legally for at least the next two years.

Obama created the program in June as a way for an estimated 1.8 million young people in situations like Lopez’s to temporarily live and work in the U.S. without fear of deportation, after Congress failed to pass the DREAM Act, which would have offered them a path to citizenship.

For Lopez, the timing was perfect, and she wants other students to have the same opportunities. Without them, she said, “I just don’t know what I would have been doing.”