Massachusetts Immigrant Students Seek Equal Access to Higher Education


Even as federal immigration reform is heating up on the national political stage, the state of Massachusetts is debating its own laws regarding immigrants. This month, the Massachusetts House of Representatives is considering an “in-state tuition” bill, which is similar to bills passed in ten other states. In Massachusetts, immigrant students without permanent legal status must pay out-of-state tuition to attend state colleges and universities even if they have attended Massachusetts schools since kindergarten. Because of the high cost of out-of-state tuition, hundreds of bright, qualified immigrant students who have earned the right to higher education must forego college every year. The “In-State Tuition” bill would allow these students to pay the same in-state tuition rates as their peers. In order to qualify for in-state tuition, students must have attended a Massachusetts high school for three years, have graduated or received the equivalent of a diploma, and must sign an affidavit stating that they will file an application to become a legal permanent resident as soon as they are eligible

In its 1982 Plyler v. Doe decision, the U.S. Supreme Court held that immigrant children cannot be denied access to public K-12 education on the basis of their undocumented immigration status. While acknowledging that undocumented status “is not irrelevant” to legislative goals, the Court emphasized that children should not be punished for decisions made by their parents, and that denying an education to undocumented immigrant children undermines our nation’s interest in ensuring a literate and educated populace. These ideals should continue to inform our decisions at the intersection of immigration and education. A look at the goals of the current legislation shows that the in-state tuition bill will: 1) benefit the state of Massachusetts as a whole, and 2) offer greater educational equality for youth in this state.

1) Offering in-state tuition benefits to all high-school graduates is a beneficial choice for citizens of Massachusetts because it is a sound investment in the state’s future. By the time these students graduate from high school the state has already expended significant resources on their education. If a student is sufficiently motivated to seek a college degree, then they clearly have a lot to offer the state of Massachusetts. In denying their dream to go to college with their classmates, the current law forces such non-resident students into alternative paths that are likely to be much less beneficial to society.

2) This bill upholds the state’s commitment to an equitable distribution of opportunities, especially for young people. It is unjust to take away the educational opportunities of a young man or woman for an immigration status that is outside of their control. The students in question were all brought to the U.S. before they were old enough to make such decisions for themselves. Now that they are coming into personal responsibility, these students are making right choices: they are seeking to become legal residents and they are seeking to go to college. The combination of an increasingly dysfunctional immigration system along with current tuition regulations unfairly bars this group of students from pursuing their educational goals.

The main statement made by opponents of this bill, that it “rewards law-breaking,” fails to address the complex issues underlying the in-state tuition bill. These youth, all of whom came to this country as children, did not choose to break any law. Nor are they receiving a “free lunch.” The bill allows undocumented Massachusetts high-school graduates to pay the exact same tuition rate as their fellow Massachusetts high school graduates. In passing this bill our state will take steps to ameliorate a situation largely created by our federal immigration regime, which is currently in a state of disarray. This does not reward law breaking, but rather uses state education regulations to reintroduces a degree of coherence into the immigration law regime. Unhappy with that solution, opponents imply that students without legal status should un-break the law by returning to their home country. The proposition is unrealistic, because for most of these young adults there is no other “home country” – home is the United States. Often these students came here as infants or toddlers; many have no family or acquaintances in their country origin. They have lived in Massachusetts and attended school for years, while their parents have worked and paid taxes. Massachusetts legislators need to deal with their presence here in the manner most fair to the students and most beneficial to the state. They can do so by passing this bill.

By the way, the ten other states that have already have already granted in-state tuition benefits include some fairly conservative states, such as Texas, Utah, and Kansas, as well as the states with some of the highest number of people without legal immigration status, including California, Texas, Illinois, and New York. In total, 26 states have introduced in-state tuition bills into their legislatures. The federal immigration debate going on in the U.S. Congress demonstrates that both sides of the political spectrum are aware of the need to create realistic solutions to an immigration system that is not serving the American people. Unfortunately, changes to the immigration system continue to drag, while economic reality continues to pull immigrants into the U.S. in response to demand for their services. Given the broken federal immigration regime, the best that the state of Massachusetts can do is provide equal opportunities for all its high-school graduates who dream of pursuing an education and constructing a hopeful future. The Massachusetts legislature should vote on and pass this legislation. We urge the legislature and Governor to do so.

Abraham Wise, a 1L, is a member of the newly-formed student group the Harvard Immigration Project (HIP).

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