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Should Illegal Immigrants Pay In-State Tuition?

As Republican presidential candidates pound one-time front-runner Rick Perry like a piñata, one of the attack lines that has resonated well with some is that Perry is sanctioning illegal immigration by offering in-state tuition rates to illegal immigrants living in Texas. So I asked my sidekicks at the Center for College Affordability and Productivity: do you think Perry is right or wrong?

The reactions varied. Like most Americans they (and I) believe in the rule of law and find it hard to condone giving illegal immigrants lower tuition rates than legal American citizens born and residing in, say, Louisiana. Yet there are countervailing arguments that, on balance, led my aides, and me, to be sympathetic to Perry’s position.

First, state universities ought to determine policies either at the state government level or the institutional level, not involving the federal government. It is not the job of states or their agencies (state universities) to enforce federal laws—or at least it should not be their job. If federal immigration authorities want to arrest illegal immigrants who happen to be studying at a university for violating the law, that is fine, but that is not happening, at least not very much. We have over-centralized the administration of government in the U.S., weakening the strengths emanating from what Justice Brandeis rightly called “laboratories of democracy.”

Moreover, some children of illegal immigrants were themselves born in the U.S., and thus have constitutionally protected U.S. citizenship (as held by the Supreme Court in United States v. Wong Kim Ark, 169 U.S. 649, 1898), so for them in-state tuition (assuming they are residents of the state) should be unquestioned. But take two young persons, both of whom are children of illegal immigrants. Suppose both sets of parents came to the U.S. in 1992. Suppose the first child was born in Mexico in 1991 (so the child is therefore “illegal”) while the second child was born in the U.S. in 1993 (and is therefore “legal”). Does it make sense to charge these two students vastly different amounts because of circumstances of birth?

Moreover, the 18 year-old who is a freshman at, say, the University of Houston, has lived virtually his/her entire life in Texas, and has no meaningful life experiences elsewhere. Should the fact that he/she came to America as a baby be held against this adult who knows no other country than the U.S., or state other than Texas?

Finally, there is the argument that, on the whole, immigration is good economically, and illegal immigrants are hard-working members of the community. We are truly a nation of immigrants.

Thus, I can understand both sides of this debate, and consequently do not feel that the answer to the question raised is strongly either “yes” or “no.” But I do feel strongly about the root causes of this issue, namely this nation’s immigration laws and, increasingly, the whole distinction between “in” and “out” of state tuition charges.

Our nation’s immigration laws make little sense. I have been writing about immigration for 40 years professionally, and by and large, immigrants make important and positive contributions to our nation. Immigration contributes to a dynamic, growing, society. At the same time, however, very high levels of immigration can cause political tensions and social unrest, as our history demonstrates. And some immigrants are obviously more productive, less burdensome additions to society than others. The optimal immigrant policy then would be one that allows relatively high levels of immigration, but uses a market mechanism, such as the selling of visas at a price determined by supply and demand, perhaps using proceeds from visa sales to first increase compliance with the law. In such a world, there would probably be less illegal immigration and the harsher treatment of illegals would probably be more justified.

Our insanity regarding immigration laws extends, of course, to some aspects of the ways we handle students, and the way some very able graduates of U.S. universities (often at some U.S. taxpayer expense) are forced to leave the country after graduation regardless of their skills. But in the interest of brevity I will not explore that issue further.

The rationale for extra fees for out-of-state attendees historically was reasonable. Since state governments provide large per-student subsidies for in-state students, universities needed to capture that amount of money from out-of-state students to avoid state taxpayer money going to indirectly subsidize the education of non-residents. Two things have happened over time, however, that makes me think the gap between in and out-of-state tuition often has grown too large. State appropriations in some states have sharply declined as a percent of the cost of educating students. Many universities are vying heavily for out-of-state students, reasoning that the marginal cost of taking an out-of-state student (in terms of state subsidy income foregone) is usually much less than the out-of-state tuition surcharge. The differential tuition rates increasingly bear no relation to costs of instruction. Are out-of-state tuition surcharges either unreasonably large or an anachronism impeding the free flow of human resources to the American institution best suiting their needs? I don’t have a definitive answer to that question, but it is probably one worth exploring.

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