Stateline Story

Legislation Touches the Lives of Undocumented Students

  • June 23, 2003
  • By Sara Scavongelli

Dario is a 17-year-old high school junior who has lived in Maryland nearly his whole life. He's an honors student, a contributor to the school newspaper and a soccer player. He'd like to study political science at the University of Maryland.

But Dario is also an illegal alien, and a May 21 veto by Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich Jr. (R) threatens to derail Dario's educational plans.

The bill Ehrlich vetoed would have given undocumented students in Maryland access to in-state tuition at the state's public colleges and universities. Out-of-state tuition for one year at the University of Maryland cost $15,100 in the spring of 2003: in-state tuition was $5,898.

Dario, who asked that his last name not be used, came to the United States from Guatemala at age 3 and is one of tens of thousands of undocumented immigrants in high schools around the country.

"I basically consider myself an American," he said at an April 10 press conference in Washington, D.C., where speakers advocated granting undocumented students in-state tuition.

A 1982 Supreme Court decision ruled that any student regardless of immigrant status could attend public elementary school and high school. But a mishmash of federal and state laws regulates who is eligible to attend public colleges and universities at in-state prices.

In the last two years, about half of the state legislatures have tried to address this issue. Laws have passed in seven states allowing undocumented students to pay in-state rates, according to the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, a group that represents more than 430 public colleges and universities.

Those who oppose such arrangements say undocumented students are here illegally and should not be supported by tax dollars. Proponents maintain that the students are in the United States through no fault of their own and should not be denied access to affordable education.

Legislation to give undocumented students in Texas in-state tuition became law in June 2001. Since the law went into effect, between 60 and 80 undocumented students enroll each semester at the University of Texas at Brownville about one mile from the U.S.-Mexico border, Rene Villarreal, director of admissions, said.

Before the legislation passed, undocumented students in Texas paid foreign tuition rates. In the fall of 2002, foreign tuition at the University of Texas at Brownsville was $282 per credit hour more than triple the in-state price of $75 per credit hour.

"Without [the Texas law], I probably wouldn't have gone to college," Julissa, a 20-year-old undocumented student at the University of Texas at Austin, told Stateline.org.

Julissa, who also requested her last name not be used, was born in Taxco Guerrero, Mexico, and came to the United States at age 11.

She graduated from high school in 2001 and was in the first class of students affected by the legislation.

"I turned in my [college] application even though I didn't know whether or not I'd be able to go," Julissa said. "When the law came out, I was like, Oh, I can go now.'"

Dario, the student from Maryland, said he hoped to attend college like Julissa but feared that without in-state rates, he would have to go part-time. He said his education might take longer to complete.

"The road's going to be long and difficult," Dario said. "My cousin also did very well in school, and he spent seven years just trying to get a bachelor's. I want something more."