Colleges see rise in illegal aliens

By Patrick Mcgee
Star-Telegram Staff Writer
Posted on Thu, Jul. 21, 2005


Texas public colleges have seen a spike in the enrollment of illegal immigrants since the Legislature approved a measure allowing them to pay in-state tuition rates.

The number of illegal immigrants attending public institutions, particularly community colleges, is nine times higher than when the change was adopted, according to data from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.

In 2001, Texas became the first state to offer in-state tuition and state financial aid to illegal immigrants. Eight other states, including California and New York, have adopted similar measures.

State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, who cosponsored the legislation, said she's pleased to see the strong enrollment patterns.

"Every single student that gets a higher education is going to be able to earn more. That's a great big economic stimulator," she said.

Texas residents would pay an average of $4,847 in tuition and fees for the coming school year at public universities, far less than the $12,927 charged to out-of-state residents. At community colleges, the average in-state cost would be $1,631, compared with $3,405 for nonresidents, according to the coordinating board.

The law also makes illegal immigrants eligible for state financial aid, but it is not known how many have benefited from state loans and grants.

Late last year, the state comptroller reported that more than 82,000 freshmen were denied state grants because there was not enough money for all eligible students.

Groups like the Washington, D.C.-based Federation for American Immigration Reform oppose giving such opportunities to illegal immigrants.

"These are people illegally in the country who are not entitled to work legally, so investing higher education in them makes no sense," said Jack Martin, the organization's special-project director.

"Secondly, because admission spaces are limited, Texas residents are being denied entry ... and third it makes no sense to ask Texas taxpayers to support with in-state tuition persons who do not belong in the country," he said.

By fall 2004, nearly 3,700 illegal immigrants were enrolled and paying in-state tuition at Texas' public institutions, according to the state data. In fall 2001, the first semester this benefit was available, 393 illegal immigrants paid in-state tuition.

The growth could be even sharper, because it appears that some institutions did not report the enrollment of these students to the state.

The highest growth was at the University of Houston, which had 146 illegal immigrants enrolled in fall 2004, and Dallas Community College, which had 744.

Enrollment of illegal immigrants also grew steadily at the University of Texas at Arlington and Tarrant County College. TCC had 142 illegal immigrants in fall 2004. UT-Arlington had 44, more than any other university except Houston and the state's selective flagship universities, the University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M University.

UT-Austin had 142 and A&M had 62. This comes as spots at the flagship campuses are especially coveted. Applications to UT-Austin and A&M have increased by about a third in less than a decade.

The University of North Texas and Texas Woman's University, both in Denton, also saw an increase in the enrollment of illegal immigrants.

University officials say they are just obeying the law.

"Being a public university, we're bound by state law to admit those students if they meet our academic requirements," A&M spokesman Lane Stephenson said.

Augustine Garza, deputy director of admissions at UT-Austin, said his office does not look at these students' applications differently from anyone else's.

"We treat them all exactly the same," he said. "If it's a law, we would be obligated to follow the law."

Offering opportunity

Most illegal-immigrant students, however, are enrolled in community colleges.

Edgar, an 18-year-old Fort Worth resident who came here illegally from Mexico with his family six years ago, has taken two semesters at TCC and plans to enroll again for the fall semester.

Edgar, who asked that his last name not be used, said his high school guidance counselor told him that he could pay in-state tuition and apply for state financial aid.

"I want to have something I can offer to my children, you know, to my wife. That's why I'm going to school right now," he said. "If I don't get a career, where am I going to be at? Am I going to be working at McDonald's all my life?"

Edgar said he received enough state grant money to pay nearly all of his tuition.

He said that he's aware of views like those held by the Federation for American Immigration Reform but that he doesn't believe anyone should be held back. He said many Americans pass up the chance to go to college, so the opportunities should go to the willing.

"They should let us get the same thing they're getting," he said. "Let anyone who wants to make this place a better world."

In 1999, the Dallas Community College District became the first college in Texas, possibly in the nation, to allow illegal immigrants to pay the same tuition as residents.

District Trustee Diana Flores said she and other board members believed that it would only be fair to offer illegal immigrants the same rate as everyone else if they meet the same requirement of living in the district for at least a year.

"Our view was that they're going through the public school system anyway and it's a tragedy for them not to be able to go on to higher education if that's what they wanted," she said. "We saw them as taxpayers, and we felt that they should be treated in the same way as people who were born here."

A study released by the Pew Hispanic Center in June found that illegal-immigrant families earn about $20,000 less than American families and that poverty rates are higher among illegal-immigrant children than adults. Thirty percent of U.S. citizens have bachelor's degrees, compared with 15 percent of illegal immigrants.

Some hope that increasing access to education will improve those numbers, and there's a push to make federal financial aid for college available to illegal immigrants.

Melissa Lazarin, an education-policy analyst for the National Council of La Raza, said her organization is working to reintroduce a bill in Congress that would make federal financial aid for college available to illegal immigrants.

The bill stalled in the last session of Congress, but Lazarin said she has higher hopes this time.

"We have another 15 or 16 states that have been trying to pass similar legislation. ... This is popping up all over and not just in quote-unquote Latino states," Lazarin said. "I think it's becoming very clear to Congress that this is something that does need to be addressed."

U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, has filed a similar bill and said students shouldn't be punished for being brought here illegally by their parents or guardians when they were young.

"It creates additional talent here in the United States, an additional employment base," she said. "It is an investment that hopefully will turn around real results."