Illegal immigrants who do well in high school are not only eligible for lower-cost, in-state tuition rates at Texas universities and colleges. Thanks to legislation signed by Gov. Rick Perry in 2001, many are also receiving publicly funded grants to pay for their education.
The in-state tuition policy, which was broadened in 2005 and again signed by Perry, has become a major flashpoint in the 2012 presidential race. Perry has taken repeated fire from his conservative base — and from his chief rival, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney — for supporting the lower residency tuition rates for students in the country illegally. What isn't as well known is that the very same law also allows some of these students to access the state's limited amount of financial aid.
TEXAS Grants, a need-based grant program that covers tuition and fees at most institutions, is only available to Texas residents. Students unable to prove U.S. citizenship may establish residency if they graduated from a Texas high school, have lived in the state for three years before applying and sign an affidavit indicating their intent to apply for permanent residency status as soon as possible.
According to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, which monitors the implementation of such legislation, the state distributed 2,156 TEXAS Grants in fiscal year 2010 to students who had established residency under those provisions, meaning many were very likely not in the United States legally. The total amount of the awards was approximately $7.8 million.
Two TEXAS Grant recipients who are not in the country legally shared their stories with the Tribune on Monday. One is a Texas A&M graduate who is now working in a restaurant because he can't provide the documentation necessary for an employer to hire him legally in his field of study, biomedical science.
The other is a recent graduate of Austin High School, the school Perry's now-grown children attended. The student's high school counselors described the student as a high achiever — a model student who had been accepted to numerous universities but had chosen a more affordable two-year college.
Now starting his first year at Austin Community College, the 18-year-old native of Mexico told the Tribune that he could not qualify for federal aid because of immigration status. So he filled out the Texas Application for State Financial Aid, a 16-page document that requires students to simply prove they have been a resident of Texas for at least three years before they can qualify to pay the in-state tuition rate.
The student told the Tribune he is receiving $1,300 in state aid, which will pay for about 70 percent of his education. The rest he earned in scholarships as a high school student. Brought to the United States at the age of six months, he plans to study business management so that he can run a restaurant. He said he reached that decision after seeing his father work for years in various kitchens.
“Some people are taking heat over undocumented immigrants. I guess I’m just thankful for Perry," he said. "Most Republicans don’t understand my situation, that I really had no choice. I had no say in coming here. I’m not going to leave because I’ve never been to Mexico. I don’t remember it. I don’t know anything about it.”
The state scholarship money spent on students who are not in the country legally is not a significant percentage of the total amount allocated by the state. A total of 68,119 awards were distributed in fiscal 2010, at a total cost of $274.1 million. It’s not even a large portion of the total student population. About 16,500 students signed affidavits in 2010 asserting they would apply for permanent residence status — out of a total of almost 1,400,000 students paying in-state tuition rates.
The Tribune contacted Perry’s office and his presidential campaign separately to ask whether he is aware the TEXAS Grants program benefits students who are illegal immigrants and whether he still agrees with the policy.
Late Monday evening, Perry spokeswoman Lucy Nashed sent the following statement: "Gov. Perry has worked to ensure TEXAS Grant recipients are college-ready. This session, he signed SB 28, which gives priority consideration for Texas Grants to students who have demonstrated the ability to do college-level work. Students paying in-state tuition rates while pursuing citizenship — those who have lived in Texas for three years, contributed to the tax base, and are subject to the same tuition rates as other Texas residents — paid $32.7 million in tuition and fees in FY 2010, more than four times the amount they received in Texas Grants."
But critics note that the grant program has been cut deeply and worry there isn’t enough money for all of the citizens eligible for TEXAS Grants. Many students who are here legally would love to have a shot at the small portion currently going to students who are in the country illegally, the critics say.
“I believe that taxpayer-funded grants should be reserved solely for legal residents of this state,” said state Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, a Tea Party conservative who serves as vice chairman of the Senate Higher Education Committee. “In a time when our state budget is tightly constrained and legal residents are already paying record-high tuition rates, I think that these taxpayer dollars should be directed toward our citizens, not illegal immigrants and the incentivization of unlawful conduct.”
The Immigration Reform Coalition of Texas, a statewide coalition of taxpayers, filed a lawsuit two years ago that seeks to prove it is unlawful to spend general revenue on TEXAS Grants without specifying that the law benefits illegal immigrants. The lawsuit is still pending in a Harris County court.
The group's general counsel, Steve Smith, called the scholarship money "one more inducement" for illegal immigrants to come to Texas.
Defenders of the program say it benefits academically successful students who are on the path to becoming productive members of a growing Texas economy — and who pay sales taxes that fund the very grants they are receiving.
“TEXAS Grants was and is designed to reward high-achieving students, period,” said state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, the sponsor of the legislation that created the program. “I agree with the governor that these students are here, are building their lives here and will be a huge part of the future of Texas.”
While all the GOP candidates have touted their economic proposals, illegal immigration has been a big issue in the presidential race. In debates, press releases and advertisements, Perry and Romney have been trying to paint one another as too soft on illegal immigration.
After taking fire over the in-state tuition issue, Perry recently confronted Romney for hiring a lawn-care company that had hired illegal immigrants, and the Texas governor's campaign passed around reports that the health care system developed under Romney in Massachusetts provided care to them. The Romney campaign has said he got rid of the lawn-care company and blamed his successor in the Massachusetts governor's office for developing policies that allowed illegal immigrants to receive care there.
Tribune reporter Jay Root contributed to this story.