The state Senate on Wednesday narrowly passed a bill that would allow certain immigrants residing in Arkansas to attend public colleges and universities at the same cost as other in-state students.
Governor Hutchinson supports the bill and is expected to sign it following a procedural vote in the House.
House Bill 1684, sponsored by Rep. Dan Douglas (R-Bentonville), applies to three groups of immigrants: the children of people with federally issued I-766 work permits, immigrants from the Marshall Islands and recipients of DACA, a federal program for certain young people lacking official status. It would allow an institution of higher education to charge in-state tuition and fees to such students, rather than the higher out-of-state rate. To qualify, a student must have lived in Arkansas for three years and either graduated from an Arkansas high school or received a GED in the state. Rep. Megan Godfrey (D-Springdale) is a co-sponsor of the bill.
For the 2018-19 school year, in-state tuition at the University of Arkansas Fayetteville is $9,130. For out-of-state students, it is $25,168.
Barbara Barroso, 26, will benefit from the change. She traveled to the Capitol on Wednesday with Arkansas United, an immigrant advocacy group. "I'll be able to go to school," she said. "For this to pass in Arkansas means a lot, because it's my home. It's a lot — too much to talk about."
Barroso attended public school in Springdale from kindergarten onward, she said. She was born in Guanajuato, Mexico. After high school, she attended Northwest Arkansas Community College in Bentonville and received her associate's degree in 2015, but could not afford to pursue her bachelor's degree. "Since then — four years already — [I'm] just playing the waiting game," she said.
Barroso replied without hesitation when asked about her college plans: "I definitely want to go to the University of Arkansas." She expects to major in communication with a minor in finance. She has been a DACA recipient since the program began in 2012, she said.
DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, was created by President Obama to benefit some undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children, a group sometimes called "Dreamers." DACA did not confer citizenship or legal permanent residency on its recipients — that would require action from Congress — but it shielded them from the threat of deportation and allowed them to legally work in the U.S. However, because DACA recipients fall into one of the many gray areas under federal immigration law, they do not qualify for preferential college tuition rates granted to Arkansas students.
They also have no legal means of becoming citizens or permanent residents, Douglas noted in an interview after the Wednesday vote.
"They’re doing everything they can," he said. "They want to be good citizens because this is their home as much as it’s my grandchildren’s home because this is where they’ve grown up. But our system doesn’t provide a pathway for them to be able to obtain citizenship."
Douglas said part of his motivation in sponsoring the bill was the plight of Indian immigrants in his district who moved to Benton County for engineering jobs and other high-skilled work. Those workers have federal work permits, he said, but because of a backlog in the green card system, some could wait decades before becoming legal permanent residents. Meanwhile, their children are ineligible for in-state tuition.
Douglas said that was key to the bill's success when similar measures have failed in previous sessions. "I don’t know that we could have passed the DACA by itself, but when you show that there is an immigration problem in the United States that’s not just limited to one group of individuals ... you broaden the base."
HB 1684, he said, was "the right bill at the right time." He commended others for their work on past efforts, such as Sen. Joyce Elliott (D-Little Rock). "She's been a champion for this cause for years," Douglas said.
Asked whether he has gotten pushback over sponsoring a bill to assist immigrants, Douglas said he had. "Oh, yeah. There’s people that ... read on the internet what they want to believe: ‘Oh, don’t give free college to illegal aliens.’ That’s not what this bill’s about. There’s nothing free about it. It’s just giving these kids that grew up here, that are here legally or they’ve attained legal status through the DACA program, the ability to get in-state tuition. They still have to pay every dollar. So, just the misinformation," he said.
"And, then I’ll be honest: There’s some racists out there that don’t give a damn."
Mireya Reith, the director of Arkansas United, said the bill may benefit as many as 5,000 DACA students and perhaps thousands more in the other groups. It could go into effect as soon as the upcoming 2019-20 school year, depending on how quickly the state Education Department is able to promulgate rules.
Reith said she expected the bill to pass the House on its second vote in that chamber, which must concur in an amendment added to the bill in Senate committee.
The bill was amended at the request of the governor. In its original form, it would have extended in-state tuition rates to any graduate of an Arkansas high school who had resided in the state for three years or more, regardless of his or her immigration status. That would have included unauthorized immigrant students who do not have DACA. Many unauthorized immigrants do not qualify for DACA or have not signed up because they are wary of registering with the federal government.
Senate President Pro Tem Jim Hendren (R-Sulphur Springs) presented the bill to the Senate on Wednesday. "These are not kids who are here illegally," he said. DACA recipients were "brought here as an infant or a child and grew up here," he said. "The idea that … we would spend all these dollars spent educating them K through 12 only to say that they’re going to have to pay a premium to go to our state institutions ... makes no sense at all." (Hendren is the nephew of Governor Hutchinson.)
Sen. Trent Garner (R-El Dorado), who voted against the bill, asked Hendren how much money state colleges and universities stood to lose if they charged in-state tuition rates rather than the higher out-of-state rate.
"What’s the cost to the institution of the people of Arkansas once we start adjusting this rate?" he asked.
Hendren said Garner's question was "theoretical" because it was impossible to predict how many students would participate. "Will there be some cost to the institution? One could argue that, or you could argue they’re already getting overcharged if they go to the institution compared to their neighbor who grew up with them down the street," Hendren said.
Rosa Velázquez, an organizer with Arkansas United, said after the vote that the bill wouldn't hurt schools' bottom line because it could increase enrollment. "We do know a lot of kids don’t go to college because of the cost," she said. "This would work as an incentive for them to go to the university, so the fiscal impact would be good."
Reith added that "the long-term fiscal impact for Arkansas and higher education is all positive, because of all the individuals that are now going to be able to get higher paid jobs and be able to contribute to the economy."
The Senate vote was 18-7, the minimum number of votes required for passage in the 35-member chamber. Democrats were united in supporting it; eight Republicans joined them. Nine others did not vote and one voted "present."
This reporting is courtesy of the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network, an independent, nonpartisan news project dedicated to producing journalism that matters to Arkansans. Find out more at arknews.org.