2007 Winning Essay

Immigration and Education: A Legal Dilemma
By Eleanor Ward Hansen, Rockbridge County High School


As a nation of immigrants, the United States must continue to support newcomers as a vital part of society. However, illegal immigration poses a number of pressing dilemmas, including whether illegal immigrants should enjoy access to in-state tuition rates at public colleges. Important factors in this decision include financial realities, fair principles, and societal issues, such as an educating the workforce and providing incentive for illegal immigrants to obey U.S. law. To best balance these competing interests, the state should only offer state-subsidized college education to illegal immigrants who have resided in the U.S. for five years, paid all taxes, and applied for legal U.S. residence.

Several states, including California, Illinois, Kansas, New Mexico, New York, Oklahoma Texas, Utah, and Washington, have all adopted similar statutes, which validates this proposition.1 Since taxpayers support state colleges and universities, illegal immigrants who have paid taxes have also contributed to the state college’s support and should receive the benefits they have paid for. However, admitting illegal immigrants who do not pay taxes in unfair to U.S. citizens, who must pay taxes to qualify for in-state tuition. If citizens who have not paid state taxes cannot attend at a reduced price, illegal aliens should not be allowed to either.

Besides paying taxes, illegal immigrants should reside in the country for five years before they can be eligible for in-state college tuition. Illegal immigrants remain in the U.S. this long are more likely to stay permanently. Thus, offering these immigrants a college education would create a better-educated workforce and provide greater incentive for them to contribute to society. Additionally, illegal immigrants must have applied for permanent U.S. residence to be eligible for public colleges. This action proves that an individual is willing to work within U.S. law and rectify his illegal status. Those who become residents aim to become a permanent part of U.S. society, and offering them a college education allows them to contribute all they are able more fully. However, immigrants who do not apply for legal status show little regard for U.S. law. Such disrespect should immediately disqualify the illegal immigrant from in-state college tuition rates.

Some lawmakers would argue that, since America represents a land of equal opportunity for all, the state should offer all illegal immigrants a public college education. This reasoning is not only impractical, but constitutionally unfounded. The 14th Amendment protects the “privileges and immunities of citizens,??? defined as those who are “born or naturalized in the United States.???2 This protection does not extend to a guaranteed reduced-price college education for citizens, much less for illegal immigrants. Furthermore, the Supreme Court’s 1982 Plyler v. Doe ruling guarantees primary and secondary education for illegal-immigrant children.3 State standards for secondary public education mandate instruction in English, math, science, and social studies, which prepares the student to enter the workforce. After this instruction, a college education, although beneficial, is not vital to society’s heath or to an individual’s ability to earn a living in the United States. Therefore, not granting illegal immigrants access to college if they have not paid taxes, applied for legal residence, and lived in the U.S. for five years does not violate the Constitution.

On the practical side, the state could never offer such a college education to all illegal immigrants. Not only would this be unjust to U.S. citizens who paid state taxes to qualify for in-state tuition, but it would be financially impossible for the states to assume this burden. To begin with, illegal immigrants already pose a considerable financial burden at the K-12 educational level: in 2006 alone, the Commonwealth spent $4 million providing for the influx of foreign students in primary and secondary schools.4 If the state offered a public college education to students whose parents did not pay taxes, this expenditure would become unmanageable. Financially, the state cannot offer discounted college education to those who have not contributed to the college’s support.

Others argue that the state should not provide illegal immigrants any reduced-price college education, pointing out that such a provision would offer no deterrent against illegal entry, and that illegal aliens who have disobeyed U.S. law are not entitled to public college. In fact, the U.S. House of Representatives is currently drafting a bill to prevent any illegal immigrant from receiving a college education.5

Although allowing limited access to public college would not provide a full deterrent for potential illegal immigrants, it would provide an incentive for illegal immigrants already in the country to pay taxes and apply for U.S. residency, which many illegal immigrants fail to do. Immigrants enter the U.S. daily, and few laws or barriers have successfully staunched their flow. However, the proposed requirements would encourage those already within the country to respect U.S. laws and encourage their children to do so as well.

Furthermore, denying all illegal immigrants the benefits associated with college education would hurt society. Since most illegal immigrants are trapped in low-wage jobs, they cannot afford private college or a public college’s full-tuition costs. Access to in-state tuition would allow them greater economic opportunity to escape blue-collar jobs, while barring all illegal immigrants for a college education would only add to the sub-class of foreign-born residents blocked from ever improving their economic situation. By allowing more blue-collar workers to advance to higher-paying jobs, this policy would decrease the permanent, inescapable cycle of poverty among illegal immigrants.

Providing illegal immigrants limited access to public colleges would ensure that only those immigrants who have respected U.S. law after their arrival would receive state benefits. Offering an affordable college education to taxpaying illegal immigrants provides them an opportunity for economic success and greater knowledge and incentive to participate within society at no extra cost to the state. Secondly, it decreases the subclass of impoverished aliens who have no way of bettering themselves. This fair, constitutional position best balances the competing public policy concerns of creating a better-educated society and a more productive workforce with limited state financial resources.
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1 Liza Porteus, “States Grapple with In-state Tuition for Illegal Immigrants,??? (Fox News.com: Politics, 6 Mar 2006), Accessed Feb 2007, http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,186876,00.html.

2 U.S. Constitution, 14th Amendment, Section 1.

3 American Patrol, “Plyler v. Doe 1982: A Summary,??? (American Patrol) Accessed 21 Feb 2007, http://www.americanpatrol.com/REFERENCE/PlylerVDoeSummary.html.

4 Virginia Bar Association, “Undocumented Students’ Admission to Public Universities and Colleges: Hypothetical??? (Virginia Bar Association Law in Society Award Essay Contest, Feb 2007).

5 Mason Adams and Michael Sluss, “Bill to Prohibit Illegal Immigrants from Receiving Tuition Dies in Panel,??? (Roanoke Times, 16 Feb 2007).


List of Works Cited

Adams, Mason and Michael Sluss. “Bill to Prohibit Illegal Immigrants from Receiving
Tuition Dies in Panel.??? Roanoke Times. 16 Feb 2007.

American Patrol. “Plyler v. Doe 1982: A Summary.??? Accessed 21 Feb 2007.
http://www.americanpatrol.com/REFERENCE/PlylerVDoeSummary.html.

Porteus, Liza. “States Grapple with In-state Tuition for Illegal Immigrants.??? Fox
News.com: Politics. 6 Mar 2006. Accessed 25 Feb 2007.
http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,186876,00.html.

U.S. Constitution. Amendment 14, Section 1.

Virginia Bar Association. “Undocumented Students’ Admission to Public Universities
and Colleges: Hypothetical.??? Virginia Bar Association Law in Society Award
Essay Contest: Feb 2007.

Updated: Jul 10, 2012