Flare-Up Over Immigration

A minor traffic violation by Jessica Colotl, a senior at Georgia's Kennesaw State University, is turning out to be anything but a minor incident. Colotl is from Mexico and doesn't have the legal authorization to live permanently in the United States. While Colotl is, by all reports, an excellent student, her situation (uncovered because of her traffic violation) has set off demands that the state do more to block the enrollment of students who are in the country illegally.

May 17, 2010

A minor traffic violation by Jessica Colotl, a senior at Georgia's Kennesaw State University, is turning out to be anything but a minor incident. Colotl is from Mexico and doesn't have the legal authorization to live permanently in the United States. While Colotl is, by all reports, an excellent student, her situation (uncovered because of her traffic violation) has set off demands that the state do more to block the enrollment of students who are in the country illegally. The op-eds and talk radio commentary in the state are full of insults (and many false accusations) not only about Colotl but about the university.

A column in The Marietta Daily Journal, entitled "KSU's Treatment of Illegal Immigrant Student Is Disgusting," accuses the university's president of giving Colotl "special treatment." The piece argues that "most citizens don't care how much 'potential' the young lady has," and suggests that the university is trying to appeal to "various Latino activist groups."

Further, the columnist suggests that Colotl may well be receiving student aid from Georgia and from the federal government. Addressing Daniel S. Papp, Kennesaw State's president, the columnist writes: "How does all this work, Dr. Papp? And can you really say you are serving the citizens of Georgia when it’s a fact that deserving Georgians are being turned away from attending KSU while illegal, undocumented, ineligible-by-law people are being admitted and then given special treatment along the way?"

One local commenter weighed in on the column this way: "How does all this work Dr. Papp, the question is asked. Well it works by deception, by secretly cheating American citizens out of a slot in the name of diversity. Everything is sacrificed by these universities in the name of 'diversity' and multiculturalism and open borders. How long will it take for Americans to see this? How long will it take for university students to see this? We're supposed to be talking about educated people here, right? University bureaucrats, however, aren't really interested in education, they're too busy with their leftist ideology."

In fact, it's legal (under both U.S. and Georgia law) for colleges to admit and enroll students who do not have legal immigration status. It's also the case that Colotl didn't receive federal or state financial aid -- and that the numbers of undocumented students in public higher education are small, and there is no evidence that they are crowding out U.S. citizens.

No matter -- the Republican gubernatorial candidates in Georgia are all issuing statements demanding that the state's universities change their policies so that they would prevent students like Colotl from enrolling. The sentiment is not unique to Georgia. The leading Republican gubernatorial candidate in California, Meg Whitman, has as part of her platform a proposal to ban such students from all public colleges and universities in the state.

The issue of undocumented students is drawing attention to colleges' admission policies, states' policies on in-state tuition rates, and what role public higher education should play in immigration policy generally.

While Republican gubernatorial candidates are trying to make Colotl a poster child for keeping such students out of higher education, others see the case in a different way. "These students are the poster children for why we need comprehensive immigration reform," said Michael A. Olivas, a law professor who has written extensively on issues involving immigrant students and directs the Institute of Higher Education Law and Governance at the University of Houston. He said that he knows about dozens of cases like Colotl's -- where a routine traffic stop escalates into an immigration issue -- involving college students. "And there will be more and more of these cases," he said.

Olivas said that the politicians who jump on cases like this to try to get public universities to exclude students like Colotl will do real damage. "This is like a witch hunt that has escalated beyond its warrants," he said. "It will continue the pattern of hate and violence that is being directed against Latinos who are perceived to be undocumented."

From Traffic Violation to Deportation

Colotl's problems started on March 29, when a police officer cited her for “impeding the flow of traffic." But things escalated because she did not have a valid driver's license, and her Mexican passport had expired. At that point, she faced an additional charge of unlicensed driving and was turned over to Cobb County officials, who invoked their participation in a U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement program known as 287(g) -- which allows state and local authorities to act on behalf of federal immigration agents. Cobb County authorities then determined that Colotl lacked the legal right to be in the United States and eventually transferred her to a detention center in Alabama to await deportation.

After Colotl's sorority organized protests, the university learned of the risk that she would be deported. University officials are not giving any interviews about the situation now, but have issued several statements outlining their view that they did not encourage anyone to break the law, that they didn't grant Colotl special treatment, and that all they did was reach out in legal ways to a talented student at risk of losing her chance to finish her degree.

Papp, the president, sent a statement to immigration authorities stating that she was a student in good standing, and that she needed another year to finish a degree. He asked that the immigration service allow her to finish her degree before imposing any punishment -- and federal authorities agreed to the request.

According to the university, Papp's communications with federal authorities asked for help for Colotl only "within the letter of the law."

On one issue, in-state tuition, the university has since announced that it will change its treatment of Colotl. She enrolled at Kennesaw State as an in-state student, eligible for in-state tuition rates, in 2006. In 2007, however, the Georgia Board of Regents changed its policy -- stating explicitly that students known to be undocumented could not receive in-state tuition. Colotl's status was not known until the recent controversy, but the university says that any future charges for tuition will be at out-of-state rates.

The university also states that it never certifies undocumented students for either state or federal aid for which they would not be eligible. Colotl's lawyers have said that her high school and college grades were high enough that she would have been eligible for a HOPE scholarship from Georgia -- effectively free tuition. But because that program (unlike enrollment in public colleges) is restricted to legal residents of the state, she did not apply for the funds.

Who Enrolls? Who Monitors?

Many of those criticizing Kennesaw State and other colleges that enroll undocumented students have argued that doing so is illegal -- and that if the public colleges would only verify students' immigration status, students in the country illegally could be kept from enrolling. Court rulings and legal statements suggest otherwise.

The most significant legal opinion on education and undocumented students is a 1982 U.S. Supreme Court ruling -- Plyler v. Doe -- which is about public schools, but relates to issues affecting colleges as well. In the case, the Supreme Court specifically differentiated between the government’s right to punish those who enter the country illegally as adults and those who enter as children who are brought to the United States by others, who are making decisions for them. Colotl is 21, but -- like most undocumented students seeking a education -- she didn't make the choice to move from Mexico. Her parents brought her when she was 11.

The Supreme Court in Plyler cited "persuasive arguments" for states to deny rights to people "whose very presence within the United States is the product of their own unlawful conduct," but said that these arguments "do not apply with the same force" to the children of such people. Further, the court cited the role of education in providing "the basic tools by which individuals might lead economically productive lives to the benefit of us all."

In North Carolina, numerous politicians have suggested that it is illegal to admit undocumented students, and state officials appealed to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to cite federal law barring these students. But the agency (during the Bush administration) replied that no federal laws are violated when public colleges and universities admit such students. The agency did say that states could opt to do so, but stressed that this was not a requirement.

Some of those who want to keep these students out say that states could do so and that public colleges should just be ordered to check citizenship status during the application process. State Sen. Eric Johnson, one of the gubernatorial candidates in Georgia, wants the public colleges and universities there not only to ask about citizenship, but to verify it. "With the federal government failing to secure our borders and stem the flow of illegal immigration, it is up to states to fill the gap. Simply checking a box on a form is not enough -- we should ask prospective students to provide verifiable proof of their immigration status," he said in one statement last week. When university officials cited the additional cost involved, he denounced "excuses" being used to "brazenly dismiss the responsibility of enforcement."

Admissions officials nationally say that -- regardless of cost -- there are also philosophical issues at play.

Barmak Nassirian, associate director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, said that his members "respect the sovereignty of the United States, which means that people should not enter the country illegally." But he said "that theoretical statement has to be tempered with an understanding of the hand we are dealt." First, he noted that admissions officers aren't dealing with those who made decisions to cross the border, but with their children, who "have no moral culpability for the decision."

Further, he said that asking colleges to verify citizenship changes the role of admissions. Colleges could end up focusing on those who by appearance or accent appear to be immigrants -- an approach that he said would involve inappropriate racial profiling and also that wouldn't be terribly effective. "Many of those with accents are going to be U.S. citizens" and many of those without legal immigration status will have nothing in their appearance to give them away, he said.

The alternative is "to set up a checkpoint where we ask everyone to produce papers," and he questioned the idea of turning admissions officials into immigration officers. Admissions officials "should no more become entangled as amateurs in checking immigration status than the guy selling you tickets at a movie theater," he said. "Do we want to be a society where every transaction is a check on immigration?"

The Numbers and the Future

Many of the statements in Georgia from those outraged over undocumented students have suggested that sympathetic state policies are attracting significant enrollments. Several recent studies, however, suggest that the numbers are proportionally small. A recent study from the National Bureau of Economic Research, for example, found that providing in-state tuition rates (as Texas and California do -- policies under attack by some in both states) doesn't attract many more undocumented students. The analysis found "a positive effect of the laws on the college attendance of older Mexican men, although estimated effects of the laws in general are not significantly different from zero."

When the issue emerged in the gubernatorial race in California, The Sacramento Bee gathered numbers from the state's higher education systems and found that less than 1 percent of students are not in the country legally. The share is particularly low -- less than three-tenths of a percent -- in the highly competitive University of California system.

Many experts on immigrant students say that these figures aren't surprising. Many of the potential students are from low-income families and yet are not eligible for federal and state aid and (in some states) for in-state tuition rates.

One solution pushed by many is the DREAM Act -- DREAM standing for Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors. The legislation -- proposed first in 2001 -- would provide a route to permanent residency for undocumented immigrants who arrived in the United States as children and pursue at least two years of college or military service.

DREAM has been part of several proposals for a comprehensive reform of U.S. immigration laws, and has generally been seen as one of the more politically popular parts of such a package. Some advocates for immigrant students, fearing that a larger bill is doomed, have been arguing of late that they should push for a stand-alone vote on DREAM.

But Olivas, even as an advocate for DREAM, said he is skeptical. In a recent paper, he noted that the act came close in the Senate in 2007, but couldn't win approval. Olivas said that the issue is more politicized today than before. In the paper, he says of immigration that "the issue is simply one of such transcendent complexity, with so many interrelated moving parts, that it cannot be incrementally reformed."


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