Republican Texas lawmakers reviving push to end in-state tuition for undocumented college students

Students walk through an area known as “The Quad” at Texas State University in San Marcos in August. Two state lawmakers want to prevent undocumented college students from being able to pay in-state tuition rates. Credit: Jordan Vonderhaar for The Texas Tribune

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Two freshman Republican state representatives want to stop undocumented immigrants from being able to pay in-state tuition at Texas’ public universities, they announced Friday. Immigrant advocacy groups immediately criticized the plan as insensitive and dehumanizing.

State Reps. Jeff Cason of Bedford and Bryan Slaton of Royse City said the bill they are co-authoring will allow colleges to determine a student’s residency status and decide if they then qualify for in-state tuition.

In 2001, Texas became the first state to allow undocumented students to qualify for in-state tuition.

“Texans’ tax dollars should not be used to reward and encourage illegal immigration to our state and nation,” Cason said in a statement.

Juan Manuel Guzman, state and local advocacy strategist for United we Dream, said if a bill like this were to pass in Texas, it would be devastating for immigrant youth and their families who want to go to school and improve their chances in life.

Guzman said the rhetoric Republican lawmakers often use in reference to undocumented immigrants can be very divisive and dehumanizing. Even with in-state tuition, Guzman said, the pathway to higher education for undocumented students is extremely difficult because they do not have access to all the financial aid and scholarship opportunities that other students have.

“Why would you end a policy that works? Why would you stop young people from going to school?” Guzman said. “(The policy has) been a blessing for a lot of undocumented students, just the possibility of having a first shot and going to school.”

Reps. Cason and Slaton did not respond to requests for comment.

If the bill were to become law, it would make tuition prices unaffordable for many students. Out-of-state tuition rates are typically three times higher than in-state rates on average.

In his statement, Cason called in-state tuition rates for undocumented students “handouts” from the Legislature that frustrate Texans whose property taxes are rising. Property taxes do help fund community college districts. But voters typically approve the creation of such districts.

In Texas, property taxes don’t subsidize four-year public universities. And property taxes also do not go to the state government, so they are not a revenue stream that lawmakers can directly tap when writing the state budget.

This is not the first time Texas GOP lawmakers have sought to repeal the 2001 law that allows undocumented students to qualify for in-state tuition. Most recently in 2019, state Rep. Kyle Biedermann, R-Fredericksburg, filed a similar measure, but it did not make it past the House Higher Education Committee, which was chaired by a Democrat.

The 2021 committee chairs have not been appointed yet. That could determine whether or not such a bill will advance to the full chamber this year.

Under current state law, undocumented students who have lived in Texas for at least three years, graduated from a Texas high school and pledged to apply for legal status as soon as possible are eligible to pay in-state tuition rates.

In a statement, Slaton said the GOP-controlled Legislature shouldn’t allow taxpayer-funded “magnets” for undocumented residents to exist while ignoring issues like property tax relief. But that comment comes after Slaton’s party in 2019 successfully championed a landmark property tax reform bill that limited when local governments can increase tax collections without voter approval and demystified the property appraisal and tax processes.

Fatima Menendez, legislative staff attorney for the Mexican American Legal Defense & Education Fund, said access to higher education is not a reward, but does allow the state to reap the rewards of an educated workforce. Any attempts to take that access away will harm the state’s economy and well-being, Menendez said.

“Increasing access to higher education improves the earning potential of each student and allows each student to contribute more to our state’s economy,” Menendez said in an email. “Avenues that allow for more students to access an affordable post-secondary education are crucial to Texas meeting its objective of having sixty percent of Texans ages 25-34 earn a certificate or degree by 2030.”

As of Feb 2019, the income of college graduates who benefited from the current law totaled $19.7 billion, and without these graduates, Texas would lose hundreds of millions in wage earnings in just one year, according to research by New American Economy. If the bill becomes law, many undocumented students will not be able to graduate.