It is not all that surprising that the Senate Education Committee declined this afternoon to approve Sen. Joyce Elliott’s bill to allow undocumented immigrants — illegal immigrants’ kids who came to the U.S. through no choice of their own — access to in-state tuition rates. After all, the governor has stated his opposition to the measure, and the Department of Higher Education testified against the bill today. Yet it was still disheartening to watch as opponents killed the bill after two hours of testimony by citing a highly debated legal argument.
Said argument is that giving tuition to undocumented immigrants would violate federal law. The law in question states:
Notwithstanding any other provision of law, an alien who is not lawfully present in the United States shall not be eligible on the basis of residence within a State (or a political subdivision) for any postsecondary education benefit unless a citizen or national of the United States is eligible for such a benefit (in no less an amount, duration, and scope) without regard to whether the citizen or national is such a resident.
Arkansas Director of Higher Education Jim Purcell said Sen. Elliott’s bill violated this law. “We are against the bill mostly because we believe the rule of law should be followed,” he said. He added that the state could lose $38 million in out-of-state tuition revenue if out-of-state students argued they should be afforded the same in-state rates as undocumented immigrants. (N.B.: This was a hypothetical situation; it seems like a dubious one at that.)
Sen. Elliott argued that her bill met the federal law’s standard that American citizens be afforded the same higher-education benefits as undocumented immigrants. The bill stipulates that any student who goes to an Arkansas high school for over three years and also graduates from an Arkansas high school would be eligible for in-state tuition. The allowance would apply equally to all students whether they were born in another state or another country.
According to Sen. Elliot, the bill mimics provisions in 11 other states, including virulently anti-immigrant Oklahoma. She argued that if the measure is illegal, as some claim, then it surely would have been struck down by now. Texas has had a similar law since 2001. A similar California law is currently being litigated in state courts.
Sen. Elliot pointed out that the bill would require undocumented students to declare their intention to become a United States citizen. She also made a broader appeal to lawmakers’ sense of justice. “It will be impossible to meet our goals if we don’t educate an entire segment of the population,” she said. “This is our Daisy Bates moment.”
University of Arkansas Chancellor David Gearhart, speaking in a personal capacity, made a similar argument. “I personally believe that passage of this legislation is very, very important to the future of this state,” he said. He spoke favorably of the 19 undocumented students at the university who show promise of a bright future.
(Read on for opposition and the vote.)
The Department of Higher Ed was joined in its opposition by several truly unhinged advocates for anti-immigrant causes. Jeannie Burlsworth, leader of the Secure Arkansas, made her expected plea. “The public doesn’t want to subsidize illegal immigrants from the cradle to the grave,” she said. Her testimony was complemented by two even crazier speakers: a leader from the heretofore-unknown-to-me Keep Arkansas Legal, who spouted Bible verses and rambled about the wave of poor Mexicans who would soon flood Arkansas if the bill were passed; and one Rusty Leewright, a spiteful man who could last be heard at the Capitol railing that doctors kill over 100,000 people a year and therefore should not be trusted to make recommendations about the utility of motorcycle helmets.
A vote for approval of the measure was defeated after Sens. Kim Hendren and Shane Broadway voted no. (There were only six members of the committee present; five yeas were needed for passage.) Sen. Broadway cited Higher Ed’s argument that the bill would be against federal law in explaining his opposition. He said the bill would surely involve the state in a lawsuit it can ill afford.