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Give immigrant kids a path to college

By Ruben Navarrette Jr., CNN Contributor
  • Ruben Navarrette says there's a new front in immigration fight: colleges and universities
  • Decisions In California, Texas backed letting children of immigrants pay in-state rates
  • He asks: Why would kids of immigrants who live in states be treated as outsiders?
  • Navarrette: Passing DREAM Act gives those young people chance at better life

San Diego, California (CNN) -- The new battleground in the immigration debate is college and university campuses. And watching this fight unfold is, well, an education:

-- In California, the state Supreme Court ruled unanimously Monday that illegal immigrants could continue to pay in-state tuition rates at public colleges and universities -- as they do in at least 10 states -- even though out-of-state students are charged higher rates.

Many Americans think it's unfair that illegal immigrants get a "benefit" not afforded U.S. citizens who live in one state but attend college in another. Yet the court said that a California law that guarantees the tuition break for any student who attends California high schools for at least three years and graduates does not conflict with a federal law banning the practice of giving illegal immigrants educational benefits while not offering the same benefits to U.S. citizens.

-- In Texas, the student senate at Texas A&M approved a bill declaring opposition to the idea of letting illegal immigrants pay in-state tuition rates. Sanity prevailed when Student Body President Jacob Robinson vetoed the divisive measure. In doing so, he displayed the sort of courage on this issue we don't see much of in Washington.

Student body president in U.S. illegally

Robinson expressed concern that no one had polled the entire student body to see what they thought about the issue, and he insisted that because the bill only focuses on tuition rates, it "does not fix the problem of residency." He also pointed out the obvious: It's up to the Texas legislature to change the in-state tuition law if that body sees fit to do so, and stunts like this make for problems, not solutions.

-- In Washington, Democrats are threatening to push through Congress in the lame-duck session what President Obama and others call a "down payment" on comprehensive immigration reform in an attempt to address the larger residency issue for at least some illegal immigrants.

According to, Obama told Latino lawmakers in a meeting at the White House on Tuesday that he wants Congress to use the lame-duck session to pass the DREAM Act, which gives a path to legal status for illegal immigrant students who complete two years of college or join the military. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said that she plans to bring the DREAM Act to the floor before the end of the year (the vote has been set tentatively for Nov. 29).

This is strange. After September 11, 2001, people used to worry about who is entering the country. Now, they're obsessed by who is going to college and how much they pay in tuition when they get there.

What we should be focused on is how to fix the country's broken immigration system so that we can do three things much better than we do now: Provide more avenues for immigrants from various countries to enter the country legally; provide as least some of the estimated 10 million illegal immigrants living in the United States a pathway to earned legal status; provide those illegal immigrants who can't or won't meet those conditions with a one-way trip back home.

Congress should take up the DREAM Act because it's the right thing to do. It's wrong to visit the sins of the parents onto their children. Many illegal immigrants getting ready to attend college came here as young children. They didn't cross a border. They were yanked across the border by their parents.

As for the thorny issue of whether states should allow illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition, that's the wrong question. Here's the right one: Why should young people who have, in some cases, lived in a state their whole lives suddenly -- when they apply to college -- be treated as if they had spent all those years living somewhere else? It doesn't make sense.

And it's not fair. The main reason that states charge lower tuition rates for residents is that those residents and their families have, over the years, paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in state taxes. And, despite what many Americans think, illegal immigrants don't enjoy any kind of amnesty from The Tax Man.

They pay sales, property, municipal, payroll and -- even, in some cases -- income taxes with the help of an ITIN (Individual Taxpayer Identification Number).

Take a step back. Think about how this looks. Americans are so hungry for the dependable and affordable labor provided by illegal immigrants that we do everything but put ads in Spanish-language newspapers.

We have no qualms about hiring these people to do our chores and make our lives easier. But, when their children dare to dream of a better life and try to go to college to make that dream a reality, we put up roadblocks as if we're worried about losing a future labor force.

That's nothing. Given how we're behaving, we should worry about losing our souls.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette.