AUSTIN — Sixteen years ago, Texas became the first state to allow undocumented students to pay lower, in-state tuition for higher education.

Republicans who have long opposed the measure failed again this legislative session to repeal it, but they passed a measure that inspires even more/just as much concern: the high-profile sanctuary cities ban known as Senate Bill 4, which undocumented students fear will make them targets for deportation.

The new law includes a provision that allows local law officers to question the immigration status of people who are lawfully detained.

“Instead of trying to repeal the Dream Act, you saw an effort to make the environment on campus less hospitable to students with the inclusion of campus police in SB 4,” said Mia Ibarra, policy analyst for the think tank Center for Public Policy Priorities.

Karla Perez, a law student at the University of Houston, is a recipient of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, an Obama administration program that allows certain undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children to get a two-year, renewable protection against deportation and work permit eligibility.

But she said her status doesn’t exempt her from the fact that she is a person of color or erase the daily concern that her family might be separated if her parents, who brought her from Mexico in 1995 when she was a toddler, are deported.

She said the term “lawful detentions” is so broad under SB 4 that if someone commits a common mistake of running a red light or jaywalking, that could be the start of a deportation proceeding.

“A university campus or college campus is no place for immigration agents or even campus police acting as immigration agents,” said Perez, who is a member of immigration advocacy group United We Dream. She pays in-state tuition.

“It is not a choice for us or our parents to migrate,” she said. “You want to raise a family in a safe place. The value of an education was always emphasized by my parents, who weren’t able to go to college. I think it comes down to what is a place where we can really thrive? The ability to attend a school in a safe place as a young woman was very important to my parents.”

While the anti-sanctuary cities law was a big win for Gov. Greg Abbott and other Republicans who wanted to crack down on undocumented immigrants, other measures went by the wayside. But not all Republicans are opposed to giving these immigrants the opportunity for an education.

House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, said before the session began that he thought the in-state tuition program was “perfectly acceptable.”

Former Gov. Rick Perry in 2001 signed the original Texas Dream Act into law, allowing in-state tuition for noncitizens. That became an issue in his unsuccessful race for the 2012 Republican nomination for president, when he angered many GOP primary voters by suggesting those who oppose the idea don’t have a heart. Perry is now the U.S. energy secretary.

When Abbott was asked about the program at a December roundtable interview with reporters, he held to his longtime view that the program is flawed and ought to be fixed.

Other bills were filed that would have required Texas education grants to follow federal financial aid eligibility requirements, changed the residency requirements for both state grants and in-state tuition, and imposed more restrictions on proving Texas residency. These provisions would have rescinded some parts of the Texas Dream Act.

Another proposal by Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, would have excluded the DACA students from state programs, such as work-study at higher-education institutions.

“It will ensure that students receiving state-subsidized employment are legally eligible to work in this country,” Schwertner said during debate.

“If we are not a country with borders and the rule of law, we are not a country,” state Rep. Mark Keough, R-Woodlands, said at the beginning of the session. 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.”

Schwertner tried to add his provision as an amendment twice, to two different bills, but both efforts failed.

All the other measures designed to restrict or end the Texas Dream Act also failed, as they have the previous three legislative sessions.

Setting priorities

Political scientist Cal Jillson of Southern Methodist University said that for leaders like Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick — who pushed the sanctuary cities ban and repeatedly has said he wants to eliminate the program that allows undocumented immigrants to pay tuition at the lower, in-state rate — it’s a question of where to put their strongest focus.

“I do think that the priorities that Patrick set early in the session made him choose which issues he was going to fight hardest on and try to keep on the front burner. And sanctuary cities was one of those,” Jillson said.

“I think it’s a question of deciding where you are going to put your effort. And in a session where 75 percent of bills fail … You’re going to lose a lot of ’em, and I think he chose where he wanted to put his effort,” Jillson said.

Rice University political scientist Mark P. Jones said Straus’ position was key.

“There was no way, shape or form that Joe Straus would ever want a repeal of the Texas Dream Act on the House floor,” Jones said.

Jones said that would have further damaged Straus’ relationship with House Democrats, which was strained by the emotional sanctuary cities debate. Moderate Republicans also see repeal as something that would damage their party’s image with Latino voters, Jones said.

“There is a completely different image between banning sanctuary cities, which can be seen as cracking down on undocumented immigrants who have a criminal record, versus a repeal of the Texas Dream Act, which is punishing students who have done nothing wrong, who were brought here as children,” Jones said. “Some Republicans oppose it (repeal) because they think it’s heartless and bad public policy. Others oppose it because they don’t think it’s good strategy. For a combination of those reasons, it never saw the light of day.”

Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, who authored SB 4, said it would “in no way” affect federal immigration law, including the DACA program. Instead, he said, banning sanctuary cities would keep communities safe by ensuring that those who commit terrible crimes cannot evade federal immigration detainers.

Tea party activist JoAnn Fleming, executive director of the Grassroots America-We the People PAC, said getting rid of in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants also was a priority but it was just one among many important issues.

“I think all the focus was put on banning sanctuary cities,” Fleming said. “Sanctuary cities was the big one because it’s a security issue … we’ll be back to work on some of those other issues.”

Path to opportunity

For her part, Ibarra said the point of the Dream Act is to create pathways for students to contribute to the Texas economy.

State Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville, said he knows Dreamers who have three or four jobs to keep up with their college expenses, and that “they came here through no fault of their own.”

Celina Moreno, legislative attorney for MALDEF, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, sees SB 4 as the main threat on college campuses after the other targeted bills failed. If the police notify federal agents about the immigration status of a student who is lawfully detained, the student will be taken into custody and that opens the door to deportation proceedings, she said.

“The passage of SB 4 makes this one of the most anti-immigrant legislative sessions in Texas’ recent history,” she said.

Fleming, the tea party activist, was less than sympathetic to the concerns of people who are here without proper documents.

“I am a rule-of-law person. … If you don’t like the law, you need to go through the legislative process at the state level and then at the congressional level to change the law,” Fleming said.

“Simply deciding that you’re going to pick and choose which laws you’re going to obey is not the right way to go about life in the United State of America,” she added. “There is an orderly way to go about becoming a citizen of the United States, and people need to do that.”

Jillson and Jones said opposition from university administrations would prevent campus police from being zealous in asking students about their immigration status. Jillson said that “the greater danger is out in the community” rather than on campus.

The “overt and covert” instruction from campus leadership to campus police is “‘Value our students. Protect our students,’” Jillson said. “That means that you keep order and security on the campus, but you’re not not supposed to be putting the students up on the hood of their cars. Not the vibe we want.”

Jones agreed, saying, “If the campus is universally supportive of undocumented immigrants, there is not going to be much tolerance or support for a police officer who asks about immigration status — meaning any police officer on any campus who is seen as a zealot regarding immigration enforcement is either going to find themselves out of a job or find themselves on the graveyard shift.”

But that doesn’t mean concerns should be dismissed, Jones said.

“It’s easy for someone like myself to say in reality very little has changed, but that’s not to say nothing has changed. … Just because in 99 cases they don’t ask about it, if you’re that one person where they do, and you’re an undocumented immigrant and you get deported to El Salvador, that one in 100 is significant,” Jones said. “If I say every time I step out of the house I have a one-in-100 chance of waking up the next day in El Salvador, or at least in a detention facility, I don’t know anyone that would accept those as good odds.”

By Elena Mejia Lutz and Peggy Fikac

This story was published in the San Antonio Express-News June 3, 2017. 

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