Denial of In-state Tuition Costs Immigrants’ Children Dearly

Metro State College professor Luis Torres uses one word to describe his school’s decision to charge out-of-state tuition to U.S. citizens and Colorado residents whose parents are illegal immigrants:

“Unconstitutional.”

“It’s amazing how many people in America don’t think the Constitution applies to immigrants,” Torres said. “I’m the child of undocumented immigrants. I know the implications.”

Recently, said Torres, the implications in Colorado have taken on a distinctly brown tinge, because most of the state’s undocumented immigrants are Latino.

Defacto discrimination against Hispanic Americans is a demographic fact of life in Metro’s tuition policy and the similar policies of at least two other state colleges – Adams State and Fort Lewis.

But the specter of racism – even if it is unintended – is only part of the problem. The true scandal resides in the notion that children can be punished for their parents’ crimes.

Metro spokeswoman Cathy Lucas told me a new state law forced her school to charge in-state kids out-of-state tuition.

House Bill 1023, passed in the last session of the General Assembly, says taxpayer money cannot benefit illegal immigrants. That, combined with an old law that says state colleges must consider the residency of a students’ parents, convinced Metro, Adams State and Fort Lewis that un-emancipated minors under the age of 23 can’t get in-state tuition if their parents are illegal immigrants.

As pubic policy, this reasoning is worse than tortured. It’s self-defeating.

“I work with several students who would be affected by this,” said Adriana Ayala, pre-collegiate director of the Roaring Fork School District in Western Colorado. “They are U.S. citizens entitled to the rights of any citizen.”

Some of Ayala’s students are the children of the illegal immigrants who wash clothes, cook food and tend lawns of Aspen’s rich and famous. Others do the same thing at hotels serving tourists who come to town hoping to rub shoulders with wealth and fame.

Ayala’s students and those like them deserve the chance to grab their bootstraps and pull. They do this in the best American tradition – by educating themselves. Denying them that opportunity because their parents don’t have papers constitutes a particularly ugly form of cruel and unusual punishment.

David Skaggs, the executive director of the Colorado Department of Higher Education, believes that. So do officials at the University of Colorado, Colorado State University and the state’s 13 community colleges. All have taken the position that you can’t visit the sins of the fathers and mothers on the sons. All want American citizens and Colorado residents to pay in-state tuition, regardless of their parents’ legal status.

Skaggs calls in-state tuition for American citizens and Colorado residents “a matter of equity and decency.”

It is also a matter of equal protection under the law.

Roberto Suro of the Pew Hispanic Center said other states have charged out-of-state tuition to the children of illegal immigrants. Suro knew of no legal challenge that has been brought.

Immigrant advocates in Colorado should try to set a precedent against this kind of prejudice.

Skaggs has asked Colorado Attorney General John Suthers for an opinion on in-state tuition for the citizen-children of illegal immigrants. Skaggs wants a uniform tuition policy for all state schools.  And he also wants that uniform policy to offer in-state tuition to U.S. citizens who are state residents.

The battle here is over the term “domicile.”

Colorado law says the parents of college students must be “domiciled” in the state if those students are to qualify for in-state tuition.

“There is,” said Skaggs, “a question as to whether parents who are not legal residents of the U.S. may nonetheless have established legal domicile in the state for purposes of their child’s qualification for resident tuition.”

Metro State’s Torres says people who live here, live here. His school’s administrators say domicile is a legal term that needs clarification.

Skaggs says he is prepared to ask the General Assembly to right this wrong, if Suthers won’t.

Suthers’ spokesman told me an opinion on in-state tuition for citizen-residents with illegal immigrant parents is at least two weeks away.

You wonder what the hold-up is.

Meanwhile, you don’t have to wonder about the impact of policies like the ones espoused at Metro, Adams State and Fort Lewis. Those policies are destroying lives and wasting potential.

At Metro, the difference between in-state and out-of-state tuition is the difference between $3,000 and $11,000, the difference between a chance at a better life and a life of underachievement.

“Right now, it’s about money,” said 22-year-old Nelson Villegas, whose parents are undocumented. Villegas got a scholarship and in-state tuition before the new law went into effect. But he knows what it will do to other young people like him.

“If they see the higher prices,” Villegas said, “they’re just going to say, ‘I can’t.’”

Torres agrees. Charging citizens and state residents out-of-state tuition because their parents are undocumented “is the academic equivalent of the poll tax. It disenfranchises a certain group of people.”

That doesn't just make the practice wrong. It makes it intolerable. 

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