Wednesday, December 12, 2007

College for illegal immigrants

My brief post Monday pointing out Harvard's decision to reduce the cost of attending college there for families earning between $120,000 to $180,000 appeared to touch a nerve. Now, two days later, the New York Times runs another story on the difficulties facing another class of potential college students trying to fund their education: the children of illegal immigrants.

Twenty five years ago the United States Supreme Court ruled that the children of illegal immigrants were entitled to a public education through high school. The Court divided 5-4. The only justice still serving on the Court who was part of the Plyler v. Doe (1982) decision is John Paul Stevens, who joined the Court's majority. The Court's rationale was that to deny to a "discrete group" of persons -- in this case the children of illegal immigrants -- a benefit to all other persons "similarly situated" within in its borders violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th amendment.

In 1996, Congress, responding to election year pressure to beat up on illegal immigrants, passed legislation banning states from offering in-state tuition rates to illegals who were resided in the state where they wanted to attend college. Ten states have since found a loophole in the federal law and permit illegals to attend public universities for in-state rates as long as they graduated from a state school. Three other states have explicitly outlawed this benefit.

About 65,000 illegal immigrants graduate from public high schools every year. For those who wish to attend college, the tuition differential hits them especially hard because illegal immigrants, by and large, have far fewer resources than their legal peers. But the societal benefit of educating illegal immigrants beyond high school gets lost in the broader debate about illegal immigration and what the United States ought to do about it. The Court's 1982 decision on the right of illegals to a public elementary and secondary education was premised on the belief that children should not be punished for the decision of their parents to come to the United States illegally. Illegal immigration has always been an attractive issue for politicians looking for red meat to throw to their constituents. Illegals are fine as long as they clear our dishes, mow our lawns, paint our houses, take care of our children, fix our cars, build our roads and office parks and provide cheap labor to home builders who construct the McMansions going up in neighborhoods like mine that reduce housing costs (and increase profit margins) by anywhere from 10-25%. A key issue that immigrant-bashers miss when foaming at the mouth about how illegals are ruining the country -- and by extension their lives -- is that American businesses, large and small, want them here. They want their cheap labor, their general ignorance on how to work the education system and get access to health providers. American consumers want the advantages that come with lower labor costs -- goods and services far cheaper than they could get them for union-scale labor or even labor above what illegals receive. Remember, no one is forcing American businesses to hire illegal workers. They hire illegals because they want to, knowing full well that Americans will save their anger for workers rather than their employers. Rather than turn their ire towards illegals by forming posses to patrol the borders or passing laws making it illegal for potential day laborers to "loiter" at 7-11s, Americans should pose this simple question to the businesses that hire them: why do you continue to hire illegal workers rather than hire legal workers and provide them with higher wages and benefits? See what answer you get.

Harvard's decision to assist students it defines as middle and upper-middle class coupled with the issue of what to charge illegals to attend public colleges should illustrate for Americans the dilemma of affordable education beyond high school. Unlike health care, we provide public education at no cost to persons who reside within a state, legal or illegal. For reasons that make absolutely no sense, not economically, not culturally and certainly not for the long-term health of our politics, we sever that contract at the most important point -- the transition to college, which no one disputes is the key to higher earning power, greater job satisfaction and greater engagement with the political system. How and why we deny education to anyone -- legal and illegal -- beyond high school and believe this is a good thing is beyond me.


Jonathan said...

Who are you, Mike Huckabee? I would just as soon not have to pay higher taxes to send an illegal alien to college, even if it meant paying more at restaurants because someone who didn't break the law got the job.

Nevertheless, if you feel it's--or universal health care is, for that matter--such an obvious moral issue, then why don't you lead by example? Set up a charity and voluntarily contribute to it yourself before you force me and everyone else who disagrees with you to do so against our will.

Maybe liberals should have to do that whenever they want to raise taxes...

Tell you what. If and after I graduate law school, then I might even put it in the paperwork to help you set it up. We'll call it part of my pro bono requirement.

KMac said...

Well, I definitely have mixed reactions on this issue. One reaction I have that is not mixed is how this issue quickly breaks down into a liberal vs. conservative one. Jonathan - nice how you went reflexively for that button. Hope that felt good. Look at variation across the Republican presidential candidates on this issue before you knee-jerk to the liberal label on this.

For my part, I don't know why this has become an "emergency." This stinks of politics, not principle. It's drummed up to be a wedge issue, not because anyone really believes we have an immigration crisis (except Pat Buchanan -who I like- and Tancredo - who I don't like)

Kudos for at least acknowledging what a lot of people gloss over. Whatever your position, we're talking about "illegal" aliens (or workers, etc) not "undocumented workers." Sounds trivial, but you can't have a real argument if folks can't agree on the basic principle - we're trying to figure out what to do about people who, by being here, are breaking the law. Whether we care that the law is enforced is another matter. Can't stand the squishy euphemisms that reek of political correctness. My $.02

Gregg Ivers said...

A universal health care system no more "forces" people who disagree with it to "support" it than does a system of public parks, roads, K-12 education, subsidized student loans (or small business loans) . . . or any public policy or program dispensing a public good "force" me or anyone else to "support" them.

My point is that illegals do not simply come to the US because they have nothing better else to do. They come here because American businesses (and consumers)want them here to reduce costs.

David said...

Kmac - These workers are "undocumented," so there's nothing being glossed over by calling them that. You don't think they are documented, do you? The issue is not "what to do about people who came here illegally." It is about what to do about the fact that much of our economy, not to mention trade, immigration and farm policies, encourage this economic reliance. It's about the fact that we have a large segment of society who exist as second class people, with few rights, for whom hard work is rewarded even less than it is for the rest of us. When people who work hard can't afford to make a living, they go where they can. It is that simple.

Jonathan -

1) Two people can share a remote resemblance on a single political issue without sharing anything else.

2) How a person feels is not relevant to question of public policy. Public policy debate is not therapy.

3) You don't actually believe that all issues of financing public policy should be replaced with charity. Have you fought against public spending for the Iraq war, or are you Ok with using taxes for that? Or maybe it's always ok to spend tax money on what you feel would be nice, but not on what others think is a good way to deal with a serious problem.

4) I assume you're against using public funding to secure loans for law students too, right? Maybe they should rely on charity - I bet most Americans would be willing to kill those programs if given an up or down vote. Who do they dislike more, hard working non-citizens or lawyers?