Over the past few years, partisanship in Washington has grown to the point that few substantive bills become law. The partisan divide at times seems insurmountable. Immigration reform has a chance to be a rare bipartisan exception.
Our nation has long prided itself on being a land of opportunity for those seeking a better life. With time, however, our immigration system has broken down. The system neither fairly serves those who want to come here nor maximizes the economic opportunities that immigrants can provide for this nation.
Recognizing this, Congress may finally act. While the U.S. House of Representatives is still developing legislation, immigration reform is steadily moving forward in the Senate where a bipartisan "Gang of Eight" drafted a strong bill that is serving as the legislative foundation. The Senate is currently debating amendments to this proposal with a vote on the overall measure expected this week.
This bill deserves the full support of higher education because it presents an extraordinary opportunity for our nation, including colleges and universities whose missions to promote education, research and economic growth will be advanced with immigration reform. Those of us in higher education must seize this moment to urge our senators to pass this bill. While the situation seems ripe for agreement, we know far too well that even the smallest bumps in the road can cause this process to unravel. It’s critical to underscore that a well-stocked pool of talent at American universities will feed directly into American businesses and create new ones that will help power our nation’s economy forward. The more we collectively make the case for the economic benefits of reform, the better the chances for overwhelming passage.
The bipartisan bill moving steadily through the Senate is filled with an array of provisions that have been long overdue. The measure establishes an expedited pathway to citizenship for the children of undocumented immigrants. These young people are here through no decision of their own and 65,000 of them graduate from U.S. high schools each year. They should have a process in place to become citizens. And they also should have the opportunity to go to their states' public colleges and universities at in-state tuition rates at the state’s discretion while participating in federal student loan and work study programs. The Senate bill would make all of this possible.
The Gang of Eight and many others also recognize the economically self-defeating policy of training the best international STEM students at U.S. universities only to force them to leave for no reason other than a lack of employment visas. To fix this, the bill streamlines and expands the green card process and eliminates many of the current system’s worst features. To be fair, there are some further improvements the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU) would still like to see made either through the amendment process now or in conjunction with action in the House, such as ensuring that agriculture, natural resource, and other science fields are included within the definition of STEM. Nevertheless, overall the provisions in the bill are a vast improvement from the current system.
And just as important as having the best and brightest students in our classrooms is having the top professors from around the world to teach them. APLU and our fellow higher education associations worked very hard to successfully secure an amendment to rid the bill of several bureaucratic hurdles that would impede some universities utilizing the H-1B visa process that authorizes such temporary work. As a result of advocacy efforts with federal relations officers of many universities, higher education associations, and the critical support of the Gang of Eight, the bill no longer places some universities within a suspect class of H-1B users considered H-1B skilled worker dependent employers.
Those opposed to immigration reform are aggressively working to derail any action. They are calling, e-mailing, tweeting, mailing, faxing, and doing everything they can to overwhelm House and Senate offices in order to block reform. To counter that, the higher education community must unite and let our lawmakers know that those other voices do not represent the majority of Americans.
The Senate bill includes most of the changes those of us in the higher education community have been seeking for the past several decades. Now that we find them included in a comprehensive immigration bill making its way through Congress we cannot allow this chance to slip away. Doing so is important for higher education, but most of all it is important for our country.
Peter McPherson is president of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities.
The Obama administration's policy to allow work permits for some students whose parents came to the U.S. illegally may have little direct impact on higher education, but colleges are helping students pursue the new status.
Ronald Reagan once said, “Don’t be afraid to see what you see.” The current flap over Gov. Rick Perry’s defense of in-state tuition for students whose parents are in the United States illegally drives us to take off the lid and take a peek.
And what we see is that illegal-immigrant students pay back more than they take.
Daniel Griswold, an immigration expert at Cato Institute, wrote to me recently in response to my inquiry, “In 1997, the National Research Council published a major study on immigration. It found that an immigrant with a college education is a huge net plus for the United States.”
Griswold reports this finding of the NRC study: “Immigrants and their descendants represent a net fiscal gain for the United States. The typical immigrant and all of his or her descendants represent a positive $80,000 fiscal gain to the government. An immigrant with more than a high school education (plus descendants) represents a $198,000 fiscal gain, one with a high school diploma a $51,000 gain, and one with less than a high school education a $13,000 loss.”
Some will counter that college slots for illegal immigrants should be given instead to poor U.S.-born students. But most of these students cannot afford college. Tuition, for example, at Texas’ universities will average this year about $8,500, and the College Board projects that the average student’s living expenses will be $17,820 -- for a total of $26,320. Multiplying this figure by five — now the Texas standard for number of years to graduation -- totals $131,600.
But total costs will be higher than this. In Texas between 1999 and 2010, average tuition and related fees at the state’s 10 largest universities rose by 120 percent. Tuition and fee increases of 10 percent a year will raise the figure of $131,600 to $160,591 in five years.
Let us look at immigrant subsidies, using Texas A&M University as a representative example. In-state tuition there is $8,418, out-of-state tuition $23,808 -- a yearly subsidy to illegal immigrants of $15,390. The total for five years is $76,950, plus a 10 percent annual increase in tuition -- for a grand total subsidy of $93,957. Subtracting $93,957 from the $198,000 fiscal gain that the NRC study documented leaves a net gain of $104,043.
Presently, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board reports that Texas colleges and universities currently enroll slightly more than 1.5 million students. Hispanic enrollment numbers are up this year by 4.5 percent -- a very small increase in a state where 40 percent of all residents are Hispanic.
The number of illegal immigrants enrolled in public four-year colleges and universities in Texas totals 4,000, while the number in community colleges totals 12,000 -- still a very small percentage in a state that is 40 percent Hispanic. The in-state tuition subsidy in community colleges to illegal immigrants is about $2,000 a year. At Lone Star Community College, where I teach, in-state tuition is $1,744, out-of-state tuition $3,844.
This is part of a larger problem and pattern. An October study by the American Enterprise institute entitled “Cheap for Whom?” finds: “Average taxpayers provide more in subsidies to elite public and private schools than to the less competitive schools where their own children are likely being educated."
The dirty little secret that universities and state and federal legislators don’t want the public to know is that these universities and legislators are de facto agents of class warfare. Note the shocking disparity between the rich and the poor that AEI reports: “Among not-for-profit institutions, the amount of taxpayer subsidies hovers between $1,000 and $2,000 per student per year until we turn to the most selective institutions.... Among these already well-endowed institutions, the taxpayer subsidy jumps substantially to more than $13,000 per student per year.”
It is class warfare. AEI argues, “If the country is to retain its competitive edge, it must reverse the current policies that result in providing the lowest levels of taxpayer support to the institutions that enroll the highest percentage of low-income, nontraditional, and minority students -- the fastest-growing segments of the population.”
And this should include illegal-immigrant students, who are residents of the state and pay sales and property taxes. They will pay back more than they take.
Ronald L. Trowbridge, Ph. D is a senior fellow at the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, a research center in Washington.