Bill would let undocumented students pay in-state tuition

Contributing Writer
Thursday, March 1, 2012

Legislation that would allow undocumented students to pay in-state tuition rates was introduced last month in the Rhode Island General Assembly. The Tuition Equity Bill, sponsored by state Rep. Grace Diaz, D-Providence, and state Sen. Juan Pichardo, D-Providence, would uphold a decision made last fall by the Rhode Island Board of Governors for Higher Education to legalize the change. 

If passed, Rhode Island residents who have attended a public high school in the state for at least three years could pay in-state tuition rates, regardless of their citizenship status. Such candidates would be required to apply for citizenship as soon as possible. 

“Education is a human right,” Diaz said of her reason for sponsoring the bill.

It is important to institute legislation that upholds the precedent set by the board, said Marta Martinez, co-founder of the Coalition of Advocates for Students, a group that supports the bill. The legislation would give undocumented students legal support in confronting discrimination.

But the board decision has met opposition. Undocumented students “shouldn’t even be here in the first place,” said Terry Gorman, executive director of Rhode Islanders for Immigration Law Enforcement, who called the board’s decision illegal. He said his group has contacted the Rhode Island Attorney General regarding the legitimacy of the board’s decision.

The subsidies are pointless because once they graduate, undocumented residents “wouldn’t be able to even get a job at Dunkin’ Donuts or Burger King with that college education,” Gorman said.

State Sen. Nicholas Kettle, R-Coventry, Foster and Scituate, said the board’s decision represents a breach of the balance of powers in the state. “It is not fair and equitable to the citizens of the state and country,” Kettle said. Measures expanding in-state tuition to undocumented students would condone the presence of undocumented families in Rhode Island, he added. 

State Rep. Daniel Reilly, R-Middletown, Newport and Portsmouth, proposed a bill to repeal the board’s decision in January. The bill is currently awaiting consideration by the House Finance Committee.

A poll commissioned by the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a nonprofit that works to achieve immigration reform, revealed another roadblock to passage of the Tuition Equity Bill. Ira Melhman, national media director and spokesperson for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, said the organization has opposed granting in-state rates to undocumented students because “it’s not fair to middle-class citizens” who do not qualify for financial aid as tuition rates escalate. 

Seventy-four percent of 500 Rhode Islanders polled reported that illegal immigration has a detrimental effect on the state, and 71 percent responded that the state should not provide subsidies to undocumented college students. 

But Martinez said the organization is “known to be an anti-immigrant group” and added that she does not consider the poll legitimate. Still, she said she is worried by the survey because the organization has significant influence. Her own organization’s campaign focuses on “providing correct information” about the effects of immigration in Rhode Island.