Online college students who are undocumented or illegal immigrants should pay attention to where the college they enroll in is located, because there may be rules about admissions and financial aid that could limit their access to higher education. A new Florida bill proposes that illegal or undocumented immigrants should not be allowed to become citizens by attending college in the United States. Rep. David Rivera (R) introduced the Adjusted Residency for Military Service Act (ARMS Act) in January 2012, and wants it to become Florida’s replacement for the proposed federal Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, which would allow illegal immigrants who serve in the military or pursue college education in the United States to become citizens. The federal DREAM Act was voted down by the Senate in late 2011, but a revised version is under consideration.
The controversy over the admission of illegal immigrants to state colleges and universities has polarized popular opinion:
- Some Americans believe that providing education and/or financial aid benefits to all residents, legal citizens or not, is the best way to ensure the development of a trained and competent workforce in a floundering economy. Some supporters of greater educational access, such as the Southern Poverty Law Center, argue that denial of college admission and financial aid to illegal immigrants is rooted in Nativism. The center maintains a list of those spearheading all forms of anti-immigrant legislation, including higher education regulation.
- Others argue that allowing undocumented immigrants to enroll in state colleges at college admission, in-state tuition rates, and access to financial aid might shut-out legal citizens. Rep. Tom Rice (R), who sponsored the bill banning illegal immigrants from admission to the state’s colleges, believes that illegal immigrants will take admissions opportunities away from legal residents and said, “I feel that students who are here without legal documentation should find opportunities elsewhere to get their education.” This is a common position among those who oppose higher education access for illegal immigrants. The issue has also been present throughout the presidential race, as Republican candidates recently debated immigration issues and discussed their opposition to the position of President Obama and the DREAM Act.
Prior to the federal DREAM Act, the main items of contention were focused on two main issues, whether illegal or undocumented immigrants should be allowed to attend college in the United States and whether illegal or undocumented immigrants should be eligible for financial aid. A similar law is under consideration in Georgia, and Alabama, Arizona and South Carolina all bar illegal immigrants from admission to any public college or university in their state.
But the federal DREAM Act introduced the issue of citizenship through college education, and as national policy has yet to by decided, individual states are now struggling to create their own policies:
- California: The late 2011 passage of the California DREAM Act, which provides illegal or undocumented immigrants with access to state-supported financial aid, sparked controversy. In signing the DREAM Act, California Governor Jerry Brown said, “Going to college is a dream that promises intellectual excitement and creative thinking. The Dream Act benefits us all by giving top students a chance to improve their lives and the lives of all of us.” In California, this law will affect less than one percent of the currently enrolled college students, the total percentage of illegal immigrants in the state’s colleges.
- Georgia: A bill similar to the Florida initiative is on hold following extensive protest against it. Most state schools already cannot accept illegal or undocumented immigrants due to a policy that stresses the acceptance of all qualified citizens before admitting undocumented residents. This policy grew from fears that illegal immigrants were “overrunning” the state schools and shutting out legal state citizens, though a 2010 study by the state education Regents found that “less than 1 percent of the state’s public college students were illegal immigrants.” The new bill would ban all illegal immigrants from enrolling in any of the state’s colleges, universities, and technical schools. But massive public outcry against it has forced politicians to consider the issue further before voting. Students and other immigration advocates jammed a committee meeting, and leaders of the university and technical schools also oppose the bill.
- New York: High school students in New York City rallied earlier this week in support of two bills aimed at making college more accessible to illegal immigrants. The New York Dream Act states that “undocumented immigrants who enter the U.S. before the age of 18, are below the age of 35, reside in New York for at least 2 years, graduate with a high school diploma (or its equivalent), and have no felony convictions” should be eligible to benefit from the state’s Tuition Assistance Program. The bill was proposed by Sen. Bill Perkins (D-Harlem) and Assemblyman Guillermo Linares and was joined by Assemblyman Francisco Moya’s proposal that the state create a fundraising commission “to provide private scholarships to all children of immigrants.”
- Texas: A 2001 law passed during Governor Rick Perry’s tenure made illegal immigrants in Texas eligible for in-state tuition at public colleges and universities as long as they have attended a Texas high school for three years prior to high school graduation. As a condition of that eligibility, those students must then sign an affidavit promising to seek citizenship. However, pressure from critics who believe that in-state tuition should be limited to legal citizens, led the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board to issue a corollary to the rule in January 2012. Texas colleges and universities are now required to send reminders to the students that they need to fulfill their citizenship.
These are just a few examples of the ways that different states have tried to balance the opposing viewpoints on illegal immigrants and college admissions. No one yet seems to have addressed the possible complications that the various state laws may have for online colleges with enrollment in different states.
For online college students, there will be confusion until there is a federal mandate to replace all the various state laws, especially if they enroll in an online college that operates in multiple states, including a state that bans them from attending. For example, if an undocumented immigrant decides to enroll in an online program offered by a state college in Arizona, the state law may prevent their enrollment. Students who are undocumented immigrants should be sure they check with the college’s admissions representatives to determine if there are any barriers to their enrollment or financial aid eligibility.