WASHINGTON — The Virginian Legislature has approved a bill denying illegal immigrants the benefits of in-state college tuition rates. But at least seven other states specifically allow the reduced tuition for "undocumented" immigrants who meet other residency requirements.

Which is the saner policy?

Virginia's Latino community — and it is Latinos who usually come to mind in discussions of illegal aliens — has doubled in the past decade, to well over 300,000, making it a potentially potent political force in the state. Latino leaders lobbied heavily against the tuition bill, and against a companion measure (also adopted) to deny drivers' licenses to illegals. Maybe legislators thought they'd better pass the measures now, before the Latino vote develops to the point where it can punish such "xenophobia."

But if it makes sense for Virginia to reserve its special benefits for its citizens, including of course those citizens who are Latinos, how can it also make sense that other states see it as reasonable to give special breaks to people whose presence in America is unlawful while denying those breaks to perfectly legal citizens from neighboring states?

Maybe the answer depends on whether you take a shorter or longer view of things. The shortsighted view is that the immigrants, whatever their legal status, are here. Many have been here for years, and most are likely to be here for years into the future. Given their presence, aren't we better off making sure they are smart and healthy and productive?

It is the argument I found appealing back in 1981, when the question was the constitutionality of a Texas law denying free public schooling to the children of illegal aliens. It wouldn't be in the interest of the citizens of a state to deny medical treatment to their sick neighbors, no matter their legal status. How could it be in their interest to deny people the opportunity for gainful employment by denying them the privilege of driving — or to enforce the ignorance of their children by keeping them out of school?

But isn't college different? The reason we have free public education is that we think everybody needs at least a high school diploma in order to be productive. And we make people pay for college because we think college is preparation for a better-than-average life — that higher education is an extra benefit. And if it is, is it reasonable that the citizens of a state should foot the bill for that "extra" for people who, if the law were enforced, wouldn't even be there?

One answer proceeds from sympathy for people who, properly documented or not, work hard, seek to better their lives and live out the American dream. The other flows from the logic that illegality has meaning or it doesn't. If it does, it certainly ought to require that we not reward the lawlessness — if only because the rewards will undercut our efforts to reduce the lawlessness.

You don't have to be a xenophobe or an anti-Latino bigot to understand the action of the Virginia Legislature. The guy who illegally makes himself at home in my shed may turn out to be a pretty good deal for me. Maybe he keeps the grass cut and the snow shoveled and the porch painted — all for less than I could manage on the "legal" market.

But it doesn't follow that I have to put him in my will or otherwise give him the status of family. Isn't the in-state tuition rate for family?

And even that misses the point, which is: If the federal government fails at its job of keeping the illegals out of the country, why should it fall to the states to pay the costs produced by that failure?

The problem, at bottom, is the inability of the federal government to enforce existing immigration policy and its refusal to reform it. The states are simply stuck with the unhappy result.


William Raspberry's e-mail address is willrasp@washpost.com.