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New University Rule to Remind Undocumented Students to Seek Legal Status

The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board today approved a new rule that would force universities to remind undocumented students of their promise to take steps toward permanent resident status.

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Just in case undocumented students receiving in-state tuition at Texas public colleges and universities forget that they pledged to apply for permanent residency status as soon as possible, a new rule approved today by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board requires their institutions to send them annual reminders.

The Texas policy that has allowed undocumented students to pay in-state tuition was a bur under Gov. Rick Perry’s saddle on the campaign trail during his failed bid for the Republican presidential nomination.  

To qualify for in-state tuition rates — instead of international rates that would apply to foreign nationals — undocumented students must have graduated from a Texas high school, have lived in the state for three years before applying and sign an affidavit promising to apply for permanent residency status as soon as possible. The process was put in place in 2001 and broadened in 2005, and Perry signed the legislation both times.

Since then, among higher education policy observers in Texas, there has been debate and confusion about who maintains the affidavits and how the state ensures that students are following through. Nationally, the basic premise of the policy — in-state for undocumented immigrants — was lambasted by GOP candidates and pundits.

"When the issue reached a critical mass last summer, the board leadership and [Texas Higher Education Commissioner Raymund Paredes] asked staff to explore ways we could create more uniformity in terms of document retention and advising of students as to their obligations," said coordinating board spokesman Dominic Chavez.

Because of federal regulations, many undocumented students are not eligible for permanent residency status when they enroll in higher education, and coordinating board officials hope that annual notices will serve as a reminder when the opportunity does become available. The new rule does not eliminate or alter the current rules for students’ eligibility for in-state tuition.

Institutions will now be required to retain students’ signed affidavits permanently and to remind students about their pledge when they are admitted, every year they are enrolled and when they graduate. Additionally — to the chagrin of some observers — the new rule calls for the institutions to refer students to “the proper federal agency for instructions on how to apply for such status.”

Some immigrant advocates worry that undocumented students could be taking a risk if they turn to federal authorities without first seeking legal counsel. The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund asked the coordinating board to add a recommendation that students consult with a lawyer prior to contacting a federal agency.

The coordinating board declined, saying in a statement, “The wording … is not expected to cause institutions to urge ineligible students to contact the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services Office.”

Chavez said that the referral provision "is simply a way for institutions to make clear that the federal government is the only entity that can provide a process for legal residency status and a student will ultimately need to turn to the appropriate federal agency for information if a pathway is established." 

"Nothing more should be read into this requirement," he said.

Some institutions, including the University of North Texas System and the University of Texas System, expressed concerns about the added cost of implementing the policy. The coordinating board encouraged them to use electronic means of notification and document retention to keep costs down. They also pointed out that the number of affected students would be small. In the UNT System, for example, 306 enrolled students would be subject to the change.

Out of a total of almost 1.4 million Texas students who paid in-state tuition rates in 2010, about 16,500 students signed affidavits pledging to apply for permanent residence status.

"Ultimately, we have little reason to doubt that affidavit students will comply with state requirements if the federal government provides a pathway to legal residency," Chavez said.

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