February 8, 2013

Senator proposes bill to remove roadblock for undocumented college students

By Brigid Curtis Ayer

Promising college students have come to Sen. Jean Leising (R-Oldenburg) with a problem: A law passed in 2011 has brought their pursuit of a college degree to a screeching halt.

Former Indiana University student Victoria Hickman is one of an estimated 3,000 college students affected by the law.

Hickman, who has a 4.0 grade point average and is only a year away from earning a degree, had her college education abruptly cut short more than a year ago when she was required to pay out-of-state tuition because of a law which prohibits undocumented students who reside in Indiana from receiving in-state tuition.

Leising, author of Senate Bill 207, would like to change this, especially for students seeking higher education who were already enrolled in a program when the law was passed.

Leising is not alone. The Indiana Catholic Conference (ICC), the official public policy arm of the Church in Indiana, is in favor of the proposal.

“We are supportive of efforts to help undocumented college students complete their college education,” said Glenn Tebbe, ICC executive director.

“These college students are working hard to provide for themselves and should be able to do so,” he said. “They and their families are paying sales, property and income taxes. In that way, they are supporting the state and its institutions and programs.”

Tuition for Hickman, now almost three times what she was paying when she entered college, made it impossible for her to return to classes. Leising said the last time that she saw Hickman she was a waitress at a restaurant and unsure if or when she would return to school.

Leising’s proposal would grandfather college students like Hickman who were already enrolled in college when the law changed.

“Federal law makes it illegal for principals or superintendents to inquire about the legal status of a child in K-12th grade,” Leising said. “Many students have no idea they are not legal residents until they go to get a driver’s license or apply for college and are denied in-state tuition.”

In 2011, the Indiana General Assembly passed a law to prohibit undocumented immigrants from receiving in-state tuition. It stipulated that students must be lawfully present to qualify for in-state tuition rates. The ICC opposed the legislation.

“Until July 2011, high school graduates entering college could get in-state tuition even if they did not have legal status,” Leising said. “Student’s like Victoria are funding 100 percent of the tuition by their hard work and hard work of their family. Undocumented immigrants are not able to get financial assistance for college.

“The young people I have talked to were brought to this country when they were in preschool,” the senator added. “They have attended school from grades K-12 and know of no other country but America. They would be extremely displaced if they went back to their home country.

“The truth is we are throwing a road block in front of them because they can’t afford the out-of-state tuition. These kids also do not qualify for any kind of state student assistance.”

Leising said the students want to be legal residents. “One young person came to see me with her immigration attorney. The immigration attorney told me that there are young adults who are in their early 20s that might have to wait up to 20 years to achieve legal status because they have aged out of the system.”

Angela Smith Jones of the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce has been working with Leising to address this issue.

“The Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce supports this legislation because it goes directly to the workforce issue,” Jones said. “We do not want to restrict our strong pipeline of skilled workers.

“Employment openings exist in Indiana that require highly skilled workers, but Indiana lacks enough highly skilled people to fill them,” Jones added. “A highly skilled workforce benefits the entire community. These college students should not be penalized through no fault of their own. They were brought here as children.”

Another reality that Jones hopes lawmakers will consider is the potential brain drain Indiana could face as a result if Leising’s bill isn’t passed.

“We talk about the brain drain problem in Indiana where highly educated students go elsewhere to live once they are educated,” Jones said. “These hard-working, bright college students will leave Indiana and go to a neighboring state to receive their education and likely stay there if they can get in-state tuition there.”

Jones said officials who have been tracking the numbers estimate there could be upward of 5,000 college students currently affected by this law, and that number is only going to grow.

Jones believes that a national bipartisan effort aimed at addressing comprehensive immigration on the federal level is likely to have a positive impact on Senate Bill 207 getting passed.

Leising is also optimistic that her bill can pass this year if she can get fellow Republican lawmakers to schedule a hearing for it.

(Brigid Curtis Ayer is a correspondent for The Criterion. For more information about the Indiana Catholic Conference, log on to www.indianacc.org. )

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