When she was 12 years old, Edilsa Lopez was abducted when she was walking on a street in her native country, Guatemala. The kidnappers brought her to the United States and moved her from city to city along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Lopez, who told her story earlier this year when she testified before the House State Affairs Committee, managed to eventually run away and called an aunt who lived in Houston. Lopez dreamed of being the first person in her family to graduate from college. So she worked hard: She learned English in one year, enrolled herself in a local high school, graduated in the top 10 percent of her class and decided to go to college. Lopez said that when she learned she could pay lower in-state tuition rates even though she was not in the U.S. legally, it motivated her to succeed in school.
Now, Lopez is an economics, business and international relations senior at the University of Texas. But Lopez says a measure championed by Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, and other Republicans may threaten her ability to finish school and could hurt the chances for other Texas students who are not living here legally to attend college.
In 2001, Texas became the first state to allow students without legal documentation of citizenship to pay in-state tuition rates, provided they could show they lived in the Texas for at least three years before their high school graduation. The law requires the students to sign an affidavit promising they will apply for permanent residency as soon as they meet the requirements. Currently, 11 other states have a similar system in place.
Birdwell’s bill would repeal that law. GOP state Reps. Bill Zedler, of Arlington, and Erwin Cain, of Como, have also filed amendments to a budget bill the House is expected to debate today that would effectively repeal the in-state tuition provision. Based on rates published on the UT website, that would mean Lopez could pay about $10,500 more each semester as a full-time liberal arts student.
With less than two weeks left in the legislative session, the measure is stuck in the Senate Higher Education Committee. Birdwell, though, has tried to unstick his bill and attempted last week to tack it on as an amendment to another education-related bill. When Democratic senators raised concerns about the amendment, Birdwell withdrew it.
Birdwell argues that his bill makes tuition rates fairer, requiring students who are not living here legally to pay the same amount as out-of-state students. And he said he doesn't worry that the measure will drive down college attendance.
But Richard Piñeda, an associate communication studies professor at UT-El Paso, disagrees. Most students in this situation arrive in Texas at a very young age, and he said it's unlikely they will return to their country of origin. Repealing in-state tuition could send students living in Texas without documentation to other states in search of higher education. Texas would lose money, and those students who remain would likely be less educated, he said.
"The idea is if you keep locking people out of different services and benefits, it doesn't necessarily solve the problem. It doesn't deter the forces of immigration," he said.
According to a recent report by researchers at Roger Williams University's Latino Policy Institute, states that let students without legal citizenship pay in-state tuition rates saw a 31 percent increase in college enrollment and a 14 percent decline in the number of high school dropouts. Of the nine studies reviewed, the researchers found two that said in-state tuition provisions cost taxpayers.
The Higher Education Coordinating Board estimates that almost 20,000 students would be affected by the change. Assuming many of these students would enroll in less expensive schools or drop out altogether if faced with higher tuition costs, the coordinating board calculates that the state's institutions of higher learning would suffer a net loss of almost $92 million in tuition in fiscal year 2016 alone.
Dominic Chavez, the board’s spokesman, said that if the bill passed, students would have to show legal proof of their residency status; the board would determine what satisfied residency requirements and universities would review the documents.
Birdwell offered a new version of the bill on May 11 clarifying that his legislation would exclude non-residents who have already completed 30 or more credit hours.
Supporters of the bill — like Duke Machado, director of GOP Is for Me, a group that educates the Hispanic community on conservative issues — say they do not want their tax dollars to fund education for non-citizens. “The bottom line is that we have to make the determination that we are American citizens and that our money, our tax dollars should go to our citizens,” Machado told the Senate Higher Education Committee.
The bill has staunch opponents, though, including Sen. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio, and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund. They say the legislation wouldn't save taxpayer money because undocumented immigrants contribute to the tax base and to the economy. And if the non-citizen immigrants are better educated, they can contribute more.
Luis Figueroa, a MALDEF Southwest Regional Office staff attorney, said the bill could lead to more school dropouts. Figueroa argues the state would not save money because the number of affected students paying tuition would drop. “There’s no real reason to single them out and make them pay more,” he said.
For Lopez, the bill could mean an early end to her college career. “It would be heartbreaking because I have worked so hard,” she said. She pays her own tuition, without family support, and she's not eligible for federal financial aid. Lopez said she could not afford to pay thousands more to finish her degree.
“All we want is an opportunity,” she told lawmakers at the hearing earlier this year.