By Brittney Martin
For Reporting Texas and the Dallas Morning News
AUSTIN — Tea Party conservatives will push next year to rescind a state law that allows illegal immigrants to pay state-resident tuition rates, and when they do, a little-known fact could be at the center of the debate: Students who aren’t citizens are also eligible for state financial aid.
Nearly 2,500 students who are in the country illegally received more than $9.5 million in state higher education grants in fiscal year 2010, the most recent figures available from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. There were 16,476 illegal-immigrant students paying resident tuition rates, meaning more than 1 in 7 get state financial aid as well.
The law allowing both the tuition and the aid has been on the books for a decade, mostly without controversy. But it became a focal point of Gov. Rick Perry’s opponents in the Republican presidential contest last year, and with conservatives rallying to limit benefits for illegal immigrants, some GOP lawmakers will seek to change the law when the Legislature meets starting in January.
“For every dollar that we give to someone who is here illegally, that’s a dollar less that we’re giving to someone who’s here legally,” said Rep. Bill Zedler, an Arlington Republican who says he intends to offer legislation to revoke the benefit.
Supporters of the law, which Perry signed in 2001 after it overwhelmingly passed the House and Senate, say they oppose punishing students who have grown up in Texas for the actions of their parents, who brought them to the U.S. illegally as young children. Perry staunchly defends the law in the face of conservative criticism.
Proponents note that the benefit is relatively small. But as tuition rises and financial aid dollars are cut, the competition for grants grows.
Javier Huamani, a junior at the University of Texas at Austin, said the in-state tuition rate and the aid he receives make the difference in whether he can attend college or not.
“I’m very grateful for the financial aid because my parents work very hard, but they don’t make enough money — not even remotely — to pay for all the costs,” said the 21-year-old engineering major from Houston. His family came to the U.S. from Peru when he was 8.
Texas is one of three states that allow students in the country illegally to receive state financial aid, and one of 12 that charges them state-resident tuition. A 2010 study by the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute estimated that about 100,000 illegal immigrants in the U.S. hold college degrees.
Tom Melecki, director of student financial services at UT-Austin, said 306 illegal-immigrant there received $1.22 million in state grants in the 2011-12 school year. That’s 3.6 percent of the $34.11 million in total state grants awarded to UT students.
“It’s a small percentage in terms of the student body and the total amount of financial aid that they are receiving,” Melecki said.
For some lawmakers, though, it’s too much, given that citizen students are going without. Those who want to repeal the law may stand a better chance than in years past, with more staunch conservatives expected in the Legislature after this year’s elections.
Sen. Judith Zaffirini, the Laredo Democrat who chaired the Senate Higher Education Committee until recently, predicted that a measure by Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, that stalled in 2011 would have a good chance of passing the committee this year.
Ben Stratmann, Birdwell’s chief of staff, says his boss “intends for this bill … to be voted out of committee, passed through the House and Senate, and ultimately signed into law by the governor.”
Perry aides noted that as recently as last month, the governor said that he supports in-state tuition for illegal immigrants, noting the federal government’s failure to address the immigration issue.
“We have to deal with this,” he said at an event sponsored by the Texas Tribune. “We don’t have the pleasure of sitting on the sidelines saying, ‘Kick everybody out.’ … We made a correct economic decision for this state.”
Huamani has signed an affidavit saying he intends to seek citizenship, a requirement under the in-state tuition law. If the law is reversed, his tuition will jump to about $15,000 a semester, and he’ll lose his state grants.
He said if that happens and a new law takes effect as early as fall 2013, he’ll find a way to pay the bill and graduate in 2014 as planned.
“I’m going to be thinking I’m about to graduate,” Huamani said. “I might as well graduate. It would be extremely difficult, but I know I wouldn’t want to just stop.”
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