Higher education good for immigrants, if they're legal

Published: Sunday, Oct. 23 2011 11:17 p.m. MDT

Rosala had been living in the United States for 13 years and had gone through all the stops of getting a high school teaching credential, she finally received her work permit after waiting for years after her college graduation. She emailed her friends, family and colleagues of the news and wrote, "I've got great news to share. I get my residency at the end of the week."

She also had three job offers by the end of the week.

With a new law passed in Rhode Island to offer in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants, immigration reform seems near fruition to provide America with a workforce once these immigrants graduate college.

Rhode Island, along with 11 other states, including Utah, have such laws that allow students who grew up in the U.S. a chance to obtain their education here as well.

The Rhode Island Board of Governors set up a few conditions for students wishing to receive the grant and said under those conditions, the law would affect just under 100 students.

"Let's try to level the playing field, and since they've grown up in Rhode Island, we'll let them into one of these three institutions," said Michael Trainor, the special assistant to the commissioner for the RIBGHE. "The second reason was having a well-education labor force is key and to a certain extent an economic development."

One student who benefited from a similar law in California was Rosala.

Rosala was one of 150 undocumented immigrant youth in Los Angeles that sociologist professionals.collegeboard.com/profdownload/young-lives-on-hold-college-board.pdf.

Roberto Martinez has been tracking and sampling since 2003.

Thirty-one of those sampled went on to get their college degrees, yet only a couple have actually been able to find work related to their field of study.

"They've really internalized these ideals of meritocracy and that regardless of your family circumstances, you can work and be something in this country," Gonzales said. "Those ideals mean something throughout college. After a couple of years of being out of school, while they speak English better than their parents, they're narrowed to the same work opportunity."

Gonzales said his study for the American Sociological Association is the most comprehensive study of its kind and urged for immigration reform. He said through integration, many undocumented immigrants can better assimilate into society through laws like the in-state tuition legislation, but for the situation to change, reform must happen on a larger scale.

"Legalization for a lot of the college-goers is the one thing that would allow them to move further in their lives," Gonzales said. "… It doesn't make sense to keep a growing pool of people in our country disenfranchised."

However, across the board, the in-state tuition laws only increased enrollment by 31 percent for Mexican males, according to economists Aimee Chin and Chinhui Juhn.

"The potential economic benefits of laws like this is being very much dampened because these kids have no pathway to legalization," Chin said. "Their human capital isn't being used in the most productive way possible. These are smart kids with abilities, and they're not able to compete."

The University of Houston professor of economics speculated that one reason there wasn't a huge increase is because going to college still costs the big bucks.

"We talk about a four-year college costing $12,000 going to costing $6,000," Chin said. "It's a huge cut in price, but many of these students come from low-income families where even that price is high."

For others dealing with immigration issues like Ira Mehlman, the cost isn't the issue, the law is. Mehlman is the media director for the Federation of Immigration Reform, and he said the in-state tuition policy rewards illegal behavior.

"It would simply encourage more people to come to the U.S. illegally and bring their kids," Mehlman said. "If we are doing that for the current group that were brought here by their parents, ten years from now, we're going to have to do that for the next group."

He compared disobeying immigration law to neglecting to paying taxes, saying that lawmakers and enforcement wouldn't hesitate to enforce the law on those who broke it.

"The bottom line is that in every other line of law, we hold parents accountable," Mehlman said.

Despite what those against the in-state tuition policy have said, states have still passed the law, and it will significantly increase enrollment of Latino students, according to the Roger Williams University School of Law.

Even though states are making huge strides toward decisions on immigration, Co-chairman of the Latino Policy Institute at RWU Jorge Elorza said the federal government will be the determiner of the future of undocumented immigrants in America.

"I'm not holding out any hope that anything meaningful will come out from the federal government," Elorza said. "All of the work is being done at state level."

However, he also said despite oppositions and restrictions, those immigrants in America will find a way to be successful and provide production in the country.

"While every employment opportunity isn't available to them, it doesn't stop them from being successful entrepreneurs in their own right," Elorza said.

EMAIL: sgambles@desnews.com

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