AR Senator pushes for undocumented students higher education

LITTLE ROCK (KATV & Arkansas News Bureau) - A state lawmaker makes another push for in-state college tuition for illegal immigrants.

Last week, Colorado became the 13th state to write a law to allow undocumented students to have in-state college tuition. Arkansas State Senator Joyce Elliott has tried to do the same in the past and hopes this year it will get the votes needed.

Senator Elliott filed the bill Monday. In 2005, with then-Republican Gov. Mike Huckabee's support, a similar measure sponsored by Elliott when she was a state representative passed the House but narrowly failed in the Senate. Four years later, another attempt failed after Gov. Mike Beebe, a Democrat, said the measure could violate federal law.

This time around her co-sponsors are Republican in a Republican controlled legislature. Sen. Johnny Key, R-Mountain Home, is a co-sponsor after opposing the measure in 2009. "I struggled with it four years ago it was tough vote then," Key said Monday. "In intervening years I've realized I was wrong in my opinion on that narrow issue on tuition."

Key said some Arkansas colleges and universities already offer in-state tuition to students from neighboring states. He said that benefit should be extended to all students who graduate high school in Arkansas.

"It doesn't make sense that we're going to hold a kid that has graduated from an Arkansas high school, gone to school with Arkansas kids, to some different standard based on something they had no control over," he said.

Rep. Justin Harris, R-West Fork, author of a failed 2009 bill that sought to prohibit undocumented students from receiving in-state tuition, said it was "a little bit of a surprise to me" that Key would co-sponsor Elliott's bill.

"My position stays the same," Harris said.

Elliott says she is trying again because it's a human issue.

A U.S. citizen, Adriana Alvarez is an advocate for the DREAM Act. She works with the Arkansas Coalition for a Dream. Alvarez grew up with undocumented friends who were brought to this country as babies, "In the state of Arkansas there are about 12, 000 undocumented students that could benefit."

She says some of her friends went to school from kindergarten to high school in Arkansas, but their goal to attend college is just a dream right now. The reason? Because undocumented students have to pay out of state tuition, costing two to three times more. Alvarez says, "The financial stress for my friends hit me through the heart and also motivated me that I have all these advantages to go to school."

Jeannie Burlsworth with Secure Arkansas says she'll be at the capitol once again to speak against the bill. "We can't support whoever comes into this country regardless of how they got here. This so-called "social justice" is actually social injustice. The way we look at it because this is not something tax payers feel like they have to fund."

Alvarez explains, "No financial aid, no scholarships, just in state tuition, same price as everyone else, that's it." She hopes the third time is the charm for Senator Joyce Elliott's attempt to pass the bill. "I'm sending emails, calling my representatives to make sure they support the bill."

Several Republican legislators said they were willing to consider the idea.

"We've already spent 120-odd-thousand dollars getting their K-12 education provided to them, and we need to make sure we recover that investment," said Rep. Nate Bell, R-Mena. "So I want to see the details on it and see what we've got. I'm not sure at this point."

About 12 percent of the more than 156,000 students attending state-supported colleges and universities last year paid out-of-state tuition, at about twice the cost of in-state tuition, according to Brandi Hinkle, spokeswoman for the state Department of Higher Education.

The bill will go before the Senate Education Committee before being voted on by both chambers. It reads that a student who has attended a secondary Arkansas school for three years must have a GED or graduated from an Arkansas high school. The student also and have proof you attended a school for three years.

To read the bill, click here.

EVENT: Monday, March 18, Author William A. Schwab will discuss his book, "Right to DREAM: Immigration Reform and America's Future," which explores key issues surrounding the bipartisan legislation known as the DREAM Act.

He will be at the Clinton School of Public Service from 12 p.m. - 1:00 p.m. in Sturgis Hall. Schwab will sign books.

He will be telling personal stories of undocumented youth are woven throughout the book, which advocates for the economic, political and social benefits of the DREAM Act that would bring undocumented youth out of the shadows and into the mainstream of society. Schwab is a professor of sociology and the former dean of the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Arkansas. He will be joined by two of the DREAMers featured in his book.

Ark. lawmaker plans to bring up immigrant tuition (Jan. 13)
AR Senator pushes for undocumented students higher education (March 11)
Ark. governor doesn't oppose in-state tuition bill (March 24)
Ark. senator: Not enough support for tuition bill (April 5)
Ark. Senate panel rejects immigrant tuition bill (April 10)