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Legislation would penalize universities for letting in undocumented immigrants

Public schools would be denied state money if they admit illegal immigrants.
Tuesday, April 4, 2006 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 8:34 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

[Note: this story has been modified since its original posting.]

Public universities would no longer be able to look the other way in admitting undocumented immigrants under a bill proposed in the Missouri House.

To get money from the state, registrars would be required under House Bill 1864 to certify they weren’t knowingly admitting illegal immigrants.

It’s already illegal in many states for any public university to admit undocumented students, but Kris Kobach, a law professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City who testified in favor of the bill, said that when he had worked for the Justice Department from 2001 through 2003, the law wasn’t commonly followed nationwide. In Missouri, it is each university's choice to admit or not admit undocumented immigrants.

“Some college systems are simply making little effort for proof of documented status, others appear to be willing to admit illegal aliens,” Kobach said. “It’s important that the law be enforced equally.”

Kobach said no information is available on undocumented immigrants, so it’s impossible to know how many are admitted to public universities in this or any other state.

At MU, rules are rigidly enforced to ensure only documented students attend, MU spokesman Christian Basi said.

The bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Jerry Nolte, R-Gladstone, said the bill would lower the incentive for more immigrants to enter the country.

“When you look at someone who comes to this country illegally, they’re looking to do a number of things,” Nolte said. “The more benefits they see, the more inducements there are (to come to the United States).”

Shawn Cockrum, director of the Missouri Migrant Education Program, said he doesn’t find this theory valid.

“So many people want to come here for a better life,” Cockrum said. “Throwing up barriers to our universities — that’s not going to stop them; that’s not their motivation to come here.”

Most undocumented immigrants were struggling in their native countries and come to the United States for better employment, he said. Now, the children they brought with them across the border are seeking a better education.

“I’d say a great percentage of immigrant students who want post-secondary education didn’t smuggle themselves across the borders; they were brought by their parents,” Cockrum said. “We’re punishing the children for the sins of their parents.”

Jorge Zapata is head of the College Assistance Migrant Program at Crowder College in Neosho, which assists migrant workers who want to become students. Zapata tours about 40 high schools throughout Missouri and Arkansas to talk about how the program can help incoming students adjust to college life and find additional scholarships.

Zapata speaks highly of the program, which is sponsored by a federal grant.However, speaking outside his professional role, Zapata said it bothers him to refuse “quite a few” undocumented students because the program can’t assist them due to their status.

“We aren’t giving these students any options, we’re forcing them as a society to either work illegally or work for cash,” he said. “Instead of turning them into $35,000 wage earners, we’re going to create a subclass who are going to work under the table for the rest of their lives.”

Now a college-educated, naturalized citizen, Zapata is a child of undocumented Mexican immigrants and considers himself proof of the potential immigrants have. He is aware of some Missouri community colleges who accept undocumented students, but he wouldn’t name them.

Otto Fajen, legislative director for the Missouri National Education Association, said the bill is unfair in light of a 1982 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Plyler v. Doe, that requires public schools nationwide to provide free education from kindergarten through 12th grade, regardless of documentation.

“We have a policy for when they’re below 18,” Fajen said. “It seems inconsistent to completely deny educational services above 18.”

It may not be as inconsistent as it seems, Kobach said, since the legal status of undocumented immigrants’ children is no longer safe once they graduate from high school.

“Children who are brought into the U.S. aren’t in violation of U.S. law until they’re 18,” he said.

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“If (an undocumented high school graduate) stays in the U.S. illegally for one year until his 19th birthday, he is barred from receiving a visa for 10 years under current U.S. law,” he said.

Cockrum , however, sees a college education as one of the few paths keeping second generation undocumented immigrants from following in their parents’ footsteps of becoming “menial laborers” in physically demanding poultry and meatpacking plants.

“It’s hard to break that cycle of poverty when you’re not given any opportunities,” Cockrumsaid.

Despite the fact that children of undocumented workers have limited options, Fajen said, they would rather stay in the United States, where they grew up, than return to the native country that now has little significance for them.

“Though they’re the child of someone who came here illegally many years ago, those folks don’t think of themselves as of any other nation,” he said. “They’ve been here since they were 5, and now they’re 18; this is what they know, this is who they are.”

Financial access is the most difficult issue for immigrant students, Zapata said, but those whose parents can manage to send them definitely go.

“I know parents working double shifts so they can send their children (to college),” he said. “They and their parents are working as much as they can to fund a class here and there, and it’ll take them forever to get through, but as far as access, these are the only places that they could go.”

College is wasted on a student who isn’t legal, though, Kobach said.

“For jobs where employers are looking for college graduates, employers are usually unwilling to violate immigration laws,” Kobach said, adding that they would be doing so if they hired an undocumented worker, regardless of educational background.

This makes educating undocumented immigrants a “lose-lose” situation, he said, indicating that the immigrant children lose time and energy and Missouri taxpayers lose money contributed toward people Kobach said can’t get jobs anyway.

The current hope most undocumented students have is the DREAM act, a federal bill proposed in 2003 that is still under consideration. If passed, DREAM would allow states to charge in-state tuition without regard to documentation, and permit immigrant sudents who have grown up in the United States and meet certain conditions to apply for temporary legal status and eventually obtain permanent status.

Marie Gonzalez became a national spokeswoman for DREAM in 2004, after her parents were deported to Costa Rica. Although Gonzalez is an undocumented immigrant, she was given a stay of deportation with permission to go to Westminster College while she remained.

Since Gonzalez, 19, isn’t eligible for federal or state scholarships and hasn’t been granted a work permit, she had to base her college choice on scholarships the institution offered.

Gonzalez, who excelled academically in high school, continues to do well; she is majoring in international busines and political science, with minors in leadership and various languages.

“I have quite an array of things,” she said with a laugh.

Now a freshman, Gonzalez hopes to stay long enough to go to law school at MU. Her legal status won’t be reviewed until July 1, so she doesn’t know how long she’ll remain in the country.

Even if she is permitted to stay after graduating, she’s more than aware that she can’t use her degree in the United States. But after living here since she was 5, continuing her education in this country seemed the most natural path.

“It’s the only country I know and love, and I don’t want to give that up,” said Gonzalez , who came to the United States with her parents in 1991. “I’ve worked my way up here.”

For undocumented students who want an American college degree, Kobach encourages them to take the legal route.

“If he wants to be a U.S. citizen, he should go back to his home country and find some relatives to stay with, and apply for a student visa,” Kobach said. More students may be motivated to do so if the bill is passed, he said, decreasing incentive for undocumented immigrants to stay in the U.S. longer.

Gonzalez said this wouldn’t be an option for her, however, or many other students in her situation.

“As far as visas go, you have to show a strong tie to your home country,” she said, adding that the goal behind student visas is to bring information from another country to one’s native land. “My ties are all here, in the U.S., other than my parents in Costa Rica. Most likely, it won’t work, because America could say, ‘She’s been here 14 years, what are we thinking?’”

Gonzalez said she hopes the bill won’t become law. “People need to have a more open mind and realize what a wonderful resource they have,” she said. “The U.S. is going to end up losing out if they don’t do something about people here who could be a great asset to them.”


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