In-state tuition fight reveals flawed approach to immigration

In this Saturday, Aug. 6, 2011 file picture, students attend graduation ceremonies at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Ala. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)

Antonio Rojas Rodriguez, a Stratford High School graduate, wants to study business at the College of Charleston and could become the first in his family to graduate from college.

Cristal Carreno graduated ninth in her class from Chapman High School in Inman and studies biology and Spanish as a rising junior at Converse College, but struggles to pay tuition without state financial aid or scholarships.

Alan Velazquez, a South Carolina Air National Guard veteran, plans to study at Trident Technical College for two years before working towards a health science degree at a four-year college.

But all of these bright, young South Carolina residents — and dozens more like them — face uncertain futures for one simple reason: Their parents are undocumented immigrants.

Mr. Rojas Rodriguez, Ms. Carreno and Mr. Velazquez were born in the United States, graduated from South Carolina high schools and plan to continue their educations in the state. By any definition they are citizens and residents of this state.

Nonetheless, their parents’ immigration status leaves them ineligible for in-state tuition, state scholarships and state financial aid. As such, they could pay more than three times the tuition their fellow in-state students, and would have to forgo substantial scholarships and financial aid for which they otherwise qualify.

That shortsighted policy bars some of South Carolina’s best and brightest young people from achieving their full potential.

It’s also almost certainly unconstitutional. In 2012, a federal court in Florida ruled that a similar law in that state violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The court found that parental immigration status was irrelevant in determining the residency status of their citizen children, who could otherwise prove they lived in Florida and met all other requirements for in-state tuition.

That lawsuit was brought by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which is representing Mr. Rojas Rodriguez, Ms. Carreno and Mr. Velazquez in a South Carolina class action suit filed this week along with the S.C. Appleseed Legal Center.

Their case is a strong one.

To be sure, entering the United States illegally or staying in the country beyond the timeframe allowed in a temporary visa means breaking the law, and breaking the law carries consequences.

A compelling case can be made that those consequences apply too infrequently and inconsistently to the nation’s roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants. Indeed, it’s difficult to argue to the contrary.

On the other hand, one can convincingly contend that our nation’s immigration system forces capable, intelligent, hardworking individuals to choose between suffering through decades of red tape or breaking the law.

But no sensible person would advocate punishing innocent children for the misdeeds of their parents, especially when that punishment involves withholding fair and equal access to higher education.

The vast majority of immigrants in South Carolina and around the country bring a palpable desire to build a better life and work hard to achieve that goal, often in backbreaking jobs and impossibly difficult conditions. They start small businesses at a higher rate than native citizens, generate billions of dollars in economic impact and contribute to the cultural melting pot the United States celebrates.

Their children — some of whom are born here and some of whom arrive here so young that they know no other home — grow up to serve this country and their states of residency in countless ways. And affordable higher education is a vital steppingstone to that service.

Indeed, this nation’s substantial immigrant population — including those who currently lack legal status — ought to be seen as an asset rather than a burden. We should strive to welcome those who wish to live and work in this country with fairness, efficiency and humanity.

More than 70 percent of Americans believe that unauthorized immigrants should be given a path to legal status, according to a Pew Research Center poll released this month. That support crosses party lines, and political leaders who have dragged their feet on desperately needed immigration reform should take note.

Of course, the nation’s immigration policy ultimately has little impact on the cases of Mr. Rojas Rodriguez, Ms. Carreno and Mr. Velazquez and the dozens of native-born children of undocumented immigrants who apply to South Carolina colleges each year.

They are all United States citizens. They are all South Carolina residents.

They deserve to be treated as such.

Ed Buckley is an editorial staffer with The Post and Courier.

Editor’s note: Converse College charges the same tuition for in-state and out-of-state students. Ms. Carreno, however, is ineligible for state scholarships and financial aid.