Sidebar: Immigrants on Campus

See Green Light, Red Light by Ronald Brownstein

Among the many things destroyed along with the twin towers on September 11 was the opportunity for many children of illegal immigrants to go to college.

Before September 11, there were bills pending in state and federal legislatures that would have eased the path to college for undocumented immigrant students. But in the wake of the attacks, the country has dramatically revised its priorities. Regulating immigration has gone to the top of the list, as part of the general intensifying of our national-security apparatus. Providing a college education to some of the nation's estimated eight million illegal immigrants, meanwhile, never a high priority, has dropped to the bottom. Innocent high-school-aged children of undocumented immigrants now find themselves part of the wide-reaching collateral damage from September 11.

Though colleges and universities generally don't ask about immigration status on their admissions forms--and no law prohibits public institutions from admitting undocumented immigrants, or requires them to report such students on campus--a provision in the Illegal Immigration and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 effectively forbids public colleges and universities from giving undocumented students the traditional discount tuition to in-state residents. The difference between in-state and out-of-state tuition is usually several thousand dollars--enough to make higher education prohibitively expensive for many children of illegal immigrants. Because the prohibition on the in-state discount puts college out of reach for many of these folks, it effectively spells the difference between having the opportunity to chase the American dream through higher education and being stuck in the underclass with the standard immigrant's illegal blue-collar job.

Before terrorists struck on September 11, several states had begun taking steps to address this problem; sympathy was rising for these young and able--though undocumented--immigrants unable to afford college. In June, Texas passed a law allowing illegal immigrants to qualify for in-state tuition. A similar law was on the docket in California. Most important, a bill (H.R. 1918) introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives in May of this year would have granted states the right to establish in-state residency for illegal immigrants, thus eliminating one of the federal barriers to charging the in-state rates. H.R. 1918 would also have allowed certain immigrants--mostly students who came to the United States as small children--to apply for permanent residency.

But in the aftermath of September 11, reformers are taking aim at immigration law--and already some reforms are targeted at students. On September 27, Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, announced her plan to introduce a bill that will include a six-month moratorium on student visas. Meanwhile, all other legislation regarding immigration, including H.R. 1918, has been placed on hold indefinitely.

"The whole climate on immigration has changed," says immigration lawyer and scholar Stephen Yale-Loehr, who teaches at Cornell Law School. "Before September 11, there was a move toward liberalization; after September 11, all pro-immigration legislation is on the back burner." Ellen Badger, director of the Office of International Student Scholar Services at the State University of New York at Binghamton, says she hopes that the current crisis won't long eclipse the needs of undocumented immigrants who seek an education. She points out that, far from posing a threat to the United States, most of these youths are exactly the kinds of people that America would be lucky to have as its citizens.

"I find it hard to imagine," Badger says, "how a population of young people generally between the ages of 10 and 18, who have been living in the U.S. for most of their young lives, who are very identified with U.S. culture, who are doing their best to live their version of the American dream, who are often the valedictorians of their class, and who came to the U.S. on their parents' decision, is the population we have to be fearful of."