INDIANAPOLIS — Two years ago, Indiana lawmakers bent on cracking down on illegal immigration passed a law that banned in-state college tuition for children of undocumented workers and resulted in hundreds of students dropping out when they couldn’t afford the much higher out-of-state rates.
Now there is an effort to roll back that law. It’s led by some conservative Republican legislators who see the ban as both unfair to children brought here illegally by their parents and contrary to the state’s effort to produce more college graduates.
“There is not a downside to educating every student, whether they’re undocumented or not,” said Rep. Rebecca Kubacki of Syracuse, the first Hispanic Republican elected to the Indiana General Assembly.
In February, the Republican-controlled state Senate passed legislation, Senate Bill 207, that would allow students who were enrolled in college when the 2011 law took effect to be eligible again for in-state tuition.
Kubacki is sponsoring that bill in the House, where some of her Republican colleagues are working to expand it by amending the legislation to cover more children of undocumented workers who are residents of Indiana. Details of the amendment have yet to be made public, but it’s expected to spark a vigorous debate.
“I never, ever dreamed there would be discussion in the House of expansion [of the bill],” said Republican State Sen. Jean Leising of Oldenburg, who authored Senate Bill 207. “But maybe enough legislators have talked to these kids and heard their plight and struggle.”
Leising kept the parameters of her bill narrow — benefiting only students already enrolled in college when the in-state tuition ban took effect in 2011 — believing it was the only way it would pass. Similar legislation was shot down last year after a fierce lobbying blitz by opponents who saw it as a form of “amnesty” for people here illegally.
Among the supporters of Leising’s bill is Republican Sen. Carlin Yoder of Middlebury who voted for the original 2011 law. His change of heart came after hearing from students adversely impacted by the 2011 law, including a college student who’d been brought to the U.S. illegally when she was two months old.
“These kids are victims,” Yoder said during a hearing on Senate Bill 207. “They‘ve done nothing wrong. They are not at liberty to tell their parents what to do when they cross this border, and I’m not sure how we as a society here in Indiana benefit by trying to limit their possibilities.”
That’s the case the Kubacki is hoping to make as well in the House. Kubacki, whose maiden name is Espinoza, is a second-generation American and the daughter of migrant farm workers.
As a freshman legislator, she voted for the 2011 law. It’s defenders at the time said it would it send a clear message that Indiana would no longer be a “sanctuary” for undocumented workers who were in the U.S. illegally because of the federal government’s failure to act on illegal immigration.
But she later came to regret that vote, especially after hearing from students who dropped out of college because they couldn’t afford the non-resident tuition; it’s $31,000 a year at Indiana University compared to $10,000 for in-state students.
“We changed the rules on these kids, which is just not the fair thing to do when they were already in college and headed on a career path,” Kubacki said.
“At the time when I was supported the bill, I was looking at things in a very black-and-white fashion,” she added. “But when you stand back and analyze things, things aren’t black and white. There is a lot of gray.”
Kubacki and Leising argue that the State of Indiana already educates thousands of children of undocumented workers in the state’s K-12 schools, which are barred by federal law from asking students to prove their citizenship status. And they say Indiana, which ranks in the bottom 10 states for residents with college degrees, shouldn’t be cutting off access to college for those who want it.
“Our public K-12 system is accepting 100 percent of these students,” Leising said. “But what we’re basically doing is saying to them: ‘When you graduate from high school, your education stops, unless your parents have become wealthy since they moved here.’”
Opponents of Senate Bill 207 remain steadfast.
“Republican Sen. Mike Delph of Carmel cautioned against Leising’s bill, saying the legislation is in direct violation of federal law. He said current federal law suggests that if a state is to provide this type of benefit, it must make it available to all citizens.
Therefore, all students — including those from other states — would have to be eligible for in-state tuition in order for Leising’s bill to be lawful.
Secondly, Delph argued that if the legislation were to go through as proposed,international students who come to study in the U.S. legally may have a claim to in-state tuition under the equal protection clause of the Constitution. He said it could be debated that these foreign students have a right to the same in-state tuition rates as undocumented students who are, arguably, in the country unlawfully.”
Bill supporters dismiss that argument and cite the dozen states that currently have laws that conditionally allow in-state college tuition for the children of illegal immigrants who reside in those states.
“I’m hoping people are going to realize these students are not going to be deported under federal law,” Leising said. “They’re here. It seems only right that we would want them to maximize their educational opportunities so they can be productive residents of Indiana.”