Juan Belman crossed the U.S.-Mexico border 13 years ago and has lived here since then as an undocumented immigrant. Now he’s a senior at the University of Texas at Austin, with hopes of attending graduate school to study immigration policy.
Belman said attending UT was possible only because he qualified for in-state tuition under a law that Republicans will attempt to repeal in the current legislative session.
Belman and thousands of other Texas students enroll in higher education under HB 1403, the so-called Texas DREAM Act, which allows noncitizens, including undocumented immigrants, to pay in-state tuition at public institutions.
“I have friends who have become teachers, who work in the energy industry,” Belman said. “A lot of ‘DREAMers’ have graduated, and it benefits us all because we’re all working and collaborating to make Texas a better state.”
But state Reps. Mark Keough, R-Woodlands, Johnathan Stickland, R-Bedford, and Pat Fallon, R-Frisco, have filed bills that, if passed, would not allow someone to be considered a Texas resident if not federally authorized to be present in the country.
“If we are not a country with borders and the rule of law, we are not a country,” Keough said. The Texas DREAM Act “is the idea of giving something to someone, no matter where they’re from, as a result of illegal activity of their parents, regardless of whether or not it’s the student’s fault. We reward dishonest behavior.”
Though HB 1403 has no formal name, it has been dubbed the Texas DREAM Act because of similarities to the proposed federal Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, which Congress has not passed since its first introduction in 2001.
To be eligible for the Texas act under current law, students must graduate from a Texas high school or receive a GED and prove they have lived in Texas for three years prior to receiving their degree. Students must also sign an affidavit indicating they will apply to be residents as soon as they are able to do so.
Belman pays close to $5,000 in tuition per semester. Without the Texas measure, he would have to pay close to $18,000. But Keough said the current law takes away spots from U.S. citizens that are filled by undocumented immigrants.
“I hear periodically from students that cannot get into colleges, and when you look at residency status from individuals who are not here legally, those who are residents pay the price,” Keough said.
According to the most recent data from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, 24,982 noncitizens qualified for in-state tuition in fiscal year 2015, making up about 1.5 percent of the total enrollment at public colleges and universities.
The University of Texas at San Antonio, with a total enrollment of 28,787, enrolled 319 noncitizens in 2015. UT-Rio Grande Valley, with 28,584 students, had 938 DREAMers, the highest number at a Texas university.
House Speaker Joe Straus told the San Antonio Express-News this month that allowing certain undocumented immigrants to pay in-state college tuition is “perfectly acceptable.” This is in sharp contrast to Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who has said repeatedly that he wants to eliminate the program.
This is the latest in Republican attempts to challenge the 14-year-old state law. In 2015, state Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, authored a bill to repeal it and said her proposal aimed to give priority to students who are U.S. citizens, but the bill did not pass the Senate.
According to an analysis by the Center for Public Policy Priorities, a progressive policy group in Austin, Texas DREAM Act students paid $51.6 million in tuition and fees in 2013. In 2010, undocumented immigrants paid about $1.6 billion in taxes, and in 2011, immigrants of all status contributed $65 billion to the state’s economy “in terms of wages, salaries and business earnings.”
Ramiro Cavazos, president and CEO of the San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, said the chamber believes everyone should have equal access to education.
“Many of our DREAMers aren’t familiar with the country of Mexico and are as American as the rest of us,” Cavazos said. “We believe that every student should have the opportunity to pursue higher education opportunities, especially because they will join the workforce and contribute to our growing economy.”
But Keough said contributions to the state economy from the Texas DREAM Act is an “urban myth” and that the program is a financial drain on taxpayers. Keough said his bill is not asking students to leave the country.
“There’s nothing wrong with trying to achieve the American dream,” Keough said. The bill “is a statement about who we are and protects us from the ravages of illegal activity that undermine the very system that people are coming here to participate in. My feeling is if you want to be a U.S. citizen, do it the right way and it will change your life forever. You don’t have to live under the shadows, you don’t have to be worried about deportation, and you don’t have to be worried to get education to achieving the American dream.”
The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board’s data shows that about 70 percent of Texas DREAM Act students were enrolled in community college during 2015. Only about 30 percent of the noncitizens were enrolled in four-year public universities.
Amy Fischer, policy director for Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, a San Antonio nonprofit that provides legal aid and representation to immigrants, said lawmakers proposing this legislation should expect much more feedback from immigrant students than in any other session.
Fischer said the students under the Texas DREAM Act do not take away spots from U.S. citizens since undocumented students are as much part of Texas as anybody else.
“The people that are benefiting are people that have gone to Texas schools and grown up in Texas,” Fischer said. “It benefits the state as a whole to ensure that every Texas student has access to quality education and it reflects a diverse workforce and educational environment.”
This article was published in the San Antonio Express-News Jan. 25, 2017.