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SHOULD UTAH CONTINUE PROVIDING IN-STATE TUITION FOR UNDOCUMENTED STUDENTS?
By Heather Stewart
Of course, says Paul Mero of the Sutherland Institute, a conservative think tank based in Salt Lake City.
“Frankly, it’s just not that complicated,” he says. “We’ve either got to be accommodating to undocumented people and help them succeed,” or we’ll just drive them deeper into the fringes of society, where crime flourishes and no one feels accountable.
“Our position is centered on the idea that our laws should help them come to the surface of society safely, and providing in-state tuition is one way of doing that,” says Mero.
The federal immigration system is broken, and the consequence is that Utah has become home to many undocumented residents. But while the federal government takes its time finding solutions, Utah has to have “functioning laws” that protect the civil rights of legal and undocumented residents alike, says Mero.
Undocumented people are much less likely to turn to authorities for help, so “crime tends to exist in those communities where undocumenteds live, because the criminals know they can get away with it,” says Mero. “Instead of driving them further underground, we should help bring them to the surface where they can both be protected and held accountable.”
In-state tuition makes it much more affordable for undocumented students to obtain higher education, which can then help lift them and their families out of poverty—and it helps further integrate them into society. “We want to get everyone involved in economic prosperity,” says Mero.
Furthermore, the Utah State Legislature passed a law in 2011 that is intended to provide a legal means for undocumented people to gain employment. HB116 created state-issued guest-worker permits for those who pass a criminal background check and pay a fine. This provision of the law is set to take effect in July 2013.
Laws that make it harder for undocumented people to learn and work don’t make the situation better for anyone in the long run. “Just because you tell them ‘no’ doesn’t mean they’re going to leave,” says Mero. Instead of fostering a sub-culture of fear and crime, he says, it’s better to help everyone feel that they have a stake in society—that they are both accountable to the community and able to thrive within it.
His primary objection to providing in-state tuition rates to undocumented students is that it encourages criminal acts. “Once they graduate, they cannot work legally,” he notes. In order to gain employment, Mortensen says an undocumented person must commit at least three felonies: document fraud to produce a Social Security number, identity fraud when using someone else’s Social Security Number and perjury when signing an I-9 form upon employment.
“Once you violate a law, you continue to violate law after law after law,” he says. And identity fraud is not a victimless crime. Mortensen says too many Utah residents—including children—have had their good credit and name tarnished by someone who has assumed their legal identity.
President Barack Obama’s recent decision to halt deportations of young people who were brought to the United States as children—and to provide them with two-year work visas—does nothing to solve the problem of crime, says Mortensen. Because the visas are temporary, “there’s still no light at the end of the tunnel for these kids,” he says. After the two years are up, the workers will need to either leave the country or begin committing felonies in order to work.
Beyond encouraging crime, Mortensen says in-state tuition is unfair to Utah taxpayers, who are forced to subsidize the tuition of students who cannot legally work upon graduation. For the 2012-13 school year, full-time resident students at the University of Utah will pay at least $5,216 in tuition, while non-residents will pay $18,334—a tremendous difference that taxpayers subsidize.
Mortensen points to the business community—particularly the Salt Lake Chamber and those who supported the Utah Compact—and says these companies and organizations are “forcing the taxpayers to be charitable out of a misplaced sense of compassion.”
And making it easier for undocumented residents to attend college disadvantages legal students, says Mortensen. College enrollments have been skyrocketing throughout the recession, and undocumented students take seats that could be filled by legal residents. Even if the colleges that have open enrollment policies don’t turn anyone away, says Mortensen, legal students may have trouble getting into classes that are required for graduation.