JEFFERSON CITY — The Missouri House gave first-round approval by voice vote Wednesday to a bill prohibiting illegal immigrants from attending public colleges and universities.
“It does not make sense, does not make economic sense, to spend taxpayer money to train a workforce that is not able to legally work here in the United States or in Missouri,” said Rep. Jerry Nolte, R-Gladstone.
Nolte said the bill would be in compliance with a federal law that restricts universities from allowing illegal immigrants to enroll. Schools that knowingly enroll illegal immigrants would not receive state funding.
This is the third year in a row where House members have voted to bar illegal immigrants from public universities. A second vote is needed to send the bill to the Senate, where it has stalled the past two years.
This year, a similar provision already is pending in a Senate committee as part of broader bill targeting illegal immigrants and the businesses that hire them.
Speaking against the bill, Rep. Jeff Roorda, D-Barnhart, said illegal immigrants are valuable to higher education.
“Immigrants bring a lot to our institutions,” he said. “They bring an immigrant work ethic. It’s a work ethic that we saw in the 1800s and 1900s that helped build this country.”
As a result of a 1982 Supreme Court decision, states must provide K-12 public education to all students, whether they are in the U.S. legally or not. But federal law discourages states from providing illegal immigrants a higher education.
Roorda introduced an amendment to weed out people he said pose a greater threat to universities.
“I can think of some far less desirable folks to have in our public institutions,” he said. “Greatest among them, I think, are sex offenders.”
The amendment was dismissed without a vote.
A 1996 federal law prohibits states from offering resident college tuition rates to students illegally present in the United States unless all U.S. citizens are eligible for the same tuition breaks.
But at least 10 states have subsequently enacted laws allowing in-state college tuition to students illegally in the U.S., including neighboring Illinois, Kansas, Nebraska and Oklahoma.
Some lawmakers expressed concern over the cost to universities, but Nolte said there should not be concern over the cost of following the law.
“I think compliance with a federal law is not something that is a special expense,” he said. “If we were interested in strictly saving money, we could relieve the universities of complying with any law.”
UM System officials said the system would assume minimal administrative costs to fulfill the bill’s requirements, according to a fiscal analysis prepared by the Legislative Research Committee.
UM System spokesman Scott Charton said the system supports the bill, and the program would require no extra funding from students or the state.
“The university collaborated with the bill in its formation,” he said. “If we enroll someone, we will verify that they are here legally. This is information that we are already able to track.”
— The Associated Press contributed to this report.