The federal government must address immigration reform and not leave states to deal with this situation on their own.
For several years now, the Washington State Legislature has been faced with decisions regarding the growing number of undocumented students in our state. The most recent debate in our Legislature is whether or not to let undocumented students apply for our state’s main financial-aid program for low-income students, otherwise known as the State Need Grant.
I want to give you the facts about this complex issue, which has become an emotionally-charged topic and as a result, is often described with a distorted version of reality.
Federal law instructs all states to provide all students with K-12 public education, regardless of a student’s immigration status. However, individual states have the authority to decide eligibility rights beyond high school education for undocumented students.
In 2003, Washington extended in-state tuition rates to non-citizen students. To this day, Washington is one of only 12 states to offer this privilege, which saves undocumented students nearly half of tuition costs compared to out-of-state tuition. Meanwhile, some states have completely denied undocumented students access to public post-secondary institutions.
The State Need Grant (SNG) has helped thousands of Washington students pursue a higher education. During the 2011-12 academic year, over 74,000 citizen students received financial assistance by the SNG; however, like most of the state-supported programs, the SNG was also impacted by a struggling economy and budget cuts, and consequently, over 32,000 eligible students went unserved.
By extending state financial aid to undocumented students, it could add an additional 800 eligible students to the already underfunded program.
The bill in question, House Bill 1817, which recently received a hearing in the Senate Higher Education Committee, is sometimes referred to as the “state Dream Act” in reference to the federal executive order, a program for undocumented students.
I think the state’s financial assistance program needs to be looked at more closely before eligibility is extended to a new group. In order to set good policy, we need to spend more time studying the issue and evaluating the future financial impact.
State government has a bad habit of promising many things, but delivering few. It would be disingenuous for us to make an unfunded promise that can’t be kept.
As a state still recovering from an economic recession, Washington needs to be realistic about available dollars, and fund programs accordingly and responsibly to ensure that we are a state that does what we say we are going to do.
Living in our country offers great freedoms and residency provides great privilege to all. With great freedom and privilege also comes great responsibility.
As the undocumented population continues to grow, our country must address immigration reforms. States should not be left to deal with this situation on their own. Congress must act now and pave the way to citizenship for the many undocumented residents who call America home.
Sen. Barbara Bailey is chair of the Senate Higher Education Committee in the Washington State Senate. She represents the 10th Legislative District and is serving her first term in the state Senate after serving 10 years in the state House of Representatives.