GOP Takes First Step to End In-State Tuition for Undocumented
[Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect further testimony and the subcommittee’s vote]
After more than 11 hours of public testimony from witnesses overwhelmingly opposed to repealing a law that allows some undocumented students to pay in-state tuition, a senate subcommittee on border security voted along party lines early Tuesday morning to send the measure to the full Veterans Affairs and Military Installations committee.
The legislation, Senate Bill 1819, by state Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, would repeal a 2001 provision that allows some undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition rates at public colleges and universities.
A committee clerk said before the vote was taken that out of the 176 people who testified, only five were in favor of Campbell’s bill.
Tuesday’s early-morning vote was along party lines with state Sens. Bob Hall, R-Edgewood, and Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, voting for the bill. State Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr., D-Brownsville, voted against.
It came after a day that saw emotional testimony and raw feelings. Witnesses ranged from undocumented immigrants who benefit from the law to Republicans who say the current policy makes sense economically. Tears were shed by several students and their supporters who said the current policy was essential to how far the undocumented students have advanced.
At one point, even Campbell became choked up after thanking an undocumented immigrant who testified that she was a victim of human trafficking. But in the end Campbell stuck to her guns and urged the committee to advance the measure.
“This bill is not about vilifying anyone, it’s just about policy,” she said. “I feel we need to direct our resources first and foremost to the legal residents of Texas. It’s not meant to harm anyone.”
But like another contentious measure the committee voted out on Monday, a bill to ban so-called “sanctuary cities” in Texas, the fate of the in-state tuition repeal effort is uncertain in the Texas House.
Not only is the clock ticking with less than 60 days left in the current regular legislative session, but it is also unclear whether there is an appetite to bring the measure to a vote before the lower chamber. House Speaker Joe Straus, R- San Antonio, has stated before that he thinks the current policy is good for Texas.
It is not known when the full Senate committee will take up the measure.
Campbell's bill was laid out Monday afternoon to a standing-room only crowd, including dozens of students who donned caps and gowns.
It marked the beginning of the first true attempt in years to repeal 2001's HB 1403, by former state Rep. Rick Noriega, D-Houston. Since then, minor attempts to repeal the tuition law have generally faltered without fanfare or attention, usually as amendments that failed to pass.
Current law — approved with near unanimous legislative consent 14 years ago — allows undocumented students who have lived in Texas for at least three years and pledge to apply for legal status as soon as they can under federal law to pay in-state tuition rates.
Campbell’s bill would end that, and allow universities to establish a policy to “verify to the satisfaction of the institution” that a student is a legal resident or citizen
At Monday's hearing, Campbell argued that, when the in-state tuition law was passed, it was expected to benefit about 735 students. That number has swelled to almost 25,000 now — about 2 percent of the state’s college-student population — and made it a magnet that encourages illegal immigration, she said.
It’s also an affront to the legal residents and citizens who are not able to enroll in the college of their choice because there is no room for them, Campbell noted.
“At the end of the day I think there are a finite number of slots in our universities and those should be reserved for Texas citizens,” she said. “Nothing about my bill is intended to be a threat in any way. It’s just about where are we going to place our resources.”
Supporters of the current policy hammered the point that Texas’ universities have reaped financial gains from the millions undocumented students pay in tuition and fees. In 2012 that was about $42.4 million, and in 2013 it was about $51.6 million, according to figures from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.
The difference between in-state and out-of-state rates varies by school, though on average students who paid out-of-state tuition during the current academic year pay about $11,100 more than their in-state counterparts, according to the data. In community colleges the difference is about $3,000.
The committee’s resource witnesses did not support several of Campbell’s claims about the policy acting as a magnet for illegal immigration.
Higher Education Coordinating Board Commissioner Raymund Paredes said there was no evidence that the policy entices youths to come to Texas illegally. He added that his agency has received no complaints about the current policy. “All of the evidence suggests that the drivers are overwhelmingly economic,” he said. He added that it’s usually only when immigrants begin to assimilate after being in the country for years that they seek to become college educated.
“It’s in the act of becoming an American that higher education becomes very personal,” he said.
Campbell suggested the two go hand in hand. “They can get that [higher education] here. They are choosing to come here,” she said. ‘That would be a recognition that higher education is an economic driver. I would like to see Texas residents [receive the lower rate] first.”
Campbell then asked Department of Public Safety director Steve McCraw if he could speak to the “impetus” that draws undocumented youth to Texas. McCraw’s DPS is the lead agency during the state’s ongoing Operation Strong Safety, an effort that has sent hundreds DPS troopers and members of the Texas National Guard to the border as a result of the thousands of undocumented youth who came to Texas last summer.
But despite leading that charge, McCraw simply said “No ma’am” to Campbell’s question. “The only issue with the unaccompanied children we were concerned about was them being victimized on both sides of the border,” he said.
Campbell also noted that Texas is one of only five states that allows undocumented students to receive financial aid to attend college, which short-changes legal residents and citizens. “It’s just bad policy that rewards illegal immigration in perpetuity,” she said.
But opponents of her measure also tried to derail that argument based on the low number of students who receive the assistance.
According to the Center for Public Policy Priorities, an Austin-based liberal think tank, about 4,100 undocumented students, about 0.3 percent of all students, received loans, state supported grants or other benefits.
Like they have all session, Senate Democrats called out their GOP counterparts for sending the bill to a border security committee and not one on higher education or state affairs. "I am aware that our Senate committees don't have jurisdictional statements, but common sense should prevail. There is not one single piece of evidence that suggest DREAMers pose a threat to the border or to Texas," state Sen. José Rodríguez, D-El Paso, told the committee.
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune.