Illegal Immigrant Students Face College Quandary
By EMILY GUEVARA
Thirty years ago today, the Supreme Court handed down a ruling that ensured illegal immigrants in Texas the right to a free public education.
The ruling upheld previous court decisions in Plyler v. Doe, a case which originated in Tyler under then school district Superintendent Jim Plyler.
The school district sought to charge $1,000 tuition to illegal immigrant students as a way to fund their education because the state wouldn't.
The 5-4 Supreme Court ruling struck down a Texas law affecting K-12 education. However, it didn't touch higher education because that's not covered.
Decades later, illegal immigrants who have gone through the state's public school system have more opportunities in this state than others, but post-high school prospects still are limited.
Despite attempts at getting a federal law passed to provide a path to citizenship for these students, it has failed.
"Plyler set the stage for increasing educational attainment for immigrant students, but Plyler doesn't address higher education," said Dr. Stella M. Flores, a Vanderbilt University assistant professor of public policy and higher education. "And so higher education access has then become a building ground for states to either attack it or provide it and there's still not sufficient resolution to allow students to take advantage of whatever education they've obtained if they're undocumented without a federal DREAM act."
Supporters say a DREAM Act, which stands for Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, would provide high-achieving students a pathway to citizenship.
But opponents describe it and other measures such as in-state tuition and state financial aid as ways states and this country are providing benefits to illegal immigrants and encouraging more people to come into this country that way.
"The problem that I have with that is that people don't understand what illegal means," state Rep. Leo Berman, R-Tyler, said. "Illegal means they're violating the laws of the United States. ... In many cases, we are giving illegal aliens more benefits than our own citizens get."
Plyler v. Doe
In 1975, the Texas Legislature passed a law that states it would not fund education for illegal immigrants. When the number of Hispanic residents in TISD started increasing in 1977, then school district Superintendent Jim Plyler recommended to the school board that the district implement the policy of charging $1,000 tuition, according to
Tyler Morning Telegraph
Shortly after that, on Sept. 6, 1977, representatives from the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund filed a suit in Tyler federal court on behalf of three Mexican-American couples and a single Mexican-American parent named as the guardians of 16 Mexican-American children.
Five days after the suit was filed, U.S. District Judge William Wayne Justice issued a preliminary injunction to stop TISD from implementing its tuition policy. On Sept. 12, the court put the children back in school. Justice later issued a permanent injunction.
TISD appealed the decision to the Fifth Circuit and ultimately to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled against it.
"The school board felt firmly they were following the law and following what the desire was of the community at that time ..." TISD attorney John Hardy, who argued the case before the Supreme Court, said in a 2007 interview.
The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that the Texas statute, which withheld state funds for the education of children who were not "legally admitted" into the country and authorized school districts to deny enrollment to those children, violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.
Dr. Michael Olivas, director of the Institute of Higher Education Law and Governance at the University of Houston Law Center wrote the first comprehensive book about the case published this year.
Olivas said although he was pleased with the Supreme Court's 1982 decision, it never occurred to him that it would have such a major impact, that it would last as long as it has and that it would create an upward pressure for post-secondary "Plyler students."
Life after high school
Texas is one of the better states when it comes to post-secondary opportunities for illegal immigrant students, said Dr. Flores, whose research specialties include college access for immigrant students and Texas higher education.
Texas is one of 12 states that offer in-state tuition at public universities to illegal immigrants who meet certain requirements, Dr. Flores said. The state also offers financial aid to these students.
"What we saw from about 2001 to 2005, 2006, were a number of states and their state legislators proposed laws to allow in-state tuition," Dr. Flores said. "(It was) more of an opportunity movement, so to speak."
Since 2006, several states started introducing legislation that prohibited higher education opportunities for illegal immigrants. In at least one case, a university board of regents made a policy barring admission, Dr. Flores said.
Some of these states barred illegal immigrant students from in-state tuition benefits. Others barred admission all together. Although these states, some of which are in the South, have relatively small numbers of Latinos, the move makes a statement, Dr. Flores said.
"It sends a message to the people moving to those states," she said. "It sends a message about race relations."
By the numbers
As of March 2010, an estimated 11.2 million illegal immigrants were living in the United States, according to a study from the Pew Hispanic Center, a project of the Pew Research Center.
That group made up less than 4 percent of the national population and slightly more than 5 percent of the labor force in March 2010, according to the report.
Mexicans made up about 58 percent of these illegal immigrants at 6.5 million in 2010. That was a decline from the estimated 7 million illegal Mexican immigrants living in the United States in 2007, according to the report.
An estimated 50,000 illegal immigrants ages 18 to 24 were enrolled in colleges and universities across the U.S., according to 2006 information from the Migration Policy Institute. That's out of about 360,000 illegal immigrants in that age group who graduated from high school at that time.
Dr. Flores said data from selective Texas public universities shows these students were as likely to complete college as similar students who were citizens -- an idea that Olivas reiterated.
"Remarkably, these kids do persist and graduate in proportionate numbers," he said of illegal immigrant high school students. "They continue to attend college and do quite well."
However, without federal legislation providing them with a path to citizenship, these students, even with a college degree, aren't authorized to work.
"They've been given false hope, and what are they to do?" Olivas said.
Despite what some might consider the plight of such students, Berman does not support measures to provide benefits to illegal immigrants.
He said they are costing the state $10 billion a year. However, that figure conflicted with a 2006 study produced by then Texas Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn that put the cost at $1.16 billion to the state and $1.44 billion to local governments.
Berman said these benefits of health care, in-state tuition and others need to be cut completely for illegal immigrants and they should fare on their own.
"The main thing is we're going to continue to have this problem as long as we offer these kind of benefits to people who are here illegally," he said.
U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Tyler, said, in an emailed statement, that bringing down the cost of education so everyone can achieve educational dreams is a worthy goal. However, he said, it is brought into perspective when an American citizen from another state can't get in-state tuition at a Texas school.
He shared specifically about the son of an Iowa veteran killed in the line of duty who couldn't go to Texas A&M University because his family could not afford the out-of-state tuition.
"There are many considerations, but the first needs to be to secure our border before we give any additional financial incentives to come in the U.S. illegally," he said. "Then we can more easily make decisions about those already here. Should the children of those who are illegally here have priority over the children of those who have given their lives so others can be educated here in freedom?"