Tuition Help for Undocumented Immigrants Debated

The dispute over tuition assistance for non-citizens is fueling what many say is the most sweeping effort to amend immigration legislation in years. NPR's Ed Gordon discusses the issue with Pedro Noguera, professor in the Steinhardt School of Education at New York University and Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies.

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ED GORDON, host:

With midterm elections just around the corner, the dispute over tuition assistance for non-citizens is fueling what many say is the most sweeping efforts to amend immigration in years. Urban sociologist Pedro Noguera is a professor at the Steinhardt School of Education at New York University. He says, extending tuition benefits to illegal immigrants helps lay the foundation for a productive and health workforce in America.

Professor Noguera joins us from our bureau in New York City. We should also note that he is a regular contributor to our roundtable. Also with us, Mark Krikorian. He is the executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, based in Washington, D.C. He says offering in-state tuition to undocumented students is unfair to those who entered the country legally. Mr. Krikorian joins us by phone from our nation's Capitol. I thank you both.

Professor Noguera, let me start with you. Let's go to the basic idea that many people just simply see this as unfair.

Mr. PEDRO NOGUERA (Professor, Steinhardt School of Education): It's understandable that people would see it as unfair, because we do have a tremendous problem with immigration in this country, large numbers of people arriving illegally. But what we don't recognize is the fact that the American economy is dependent on that labor, and we haven't exercised the kinds of comprehensive policy changes that would address the problem.

With respect to the students who want to go to universities in the states where they reside, the vast majority of those students, as your report just described, are students who have lived in this country most of their lives. To have those students remain illegal and in the shadows as fugitives is not productive either for them or for the country.

It is also not effective or sensible to keep those students who are very talented and hard working out of college because we lose their productivity and their contribution to the country. So I think there are good arguments to be made. I think students who are upset or who regard access to the state tuition for these students are somehow coming at their expense, really are directing their anger in the wrong direction.

Across the country, we've seen state tuitions rising and we've also seen financial aid decline.

GORDON: Mr. Krikorian, pick up on that point. Why should these students pay for, quote, "sins of their fathers," if in fact they were brought to this country. They've been living here all of their lives. They are productive. They tend, those that go on to higher education, to do very well, and could, in fact, become productive citizens.

Mr. MARK KRIKORIAN (Executive Director, Center for Immigration Studies): Well, to pick up on what the professor said, the argument, apparently, is with Congress, not with the schools themselves. The fact is that illegal aliens are illegally here. If you want them to have an amnesty, as the professor said that they should, well, that's an argument you have in Congress.

Number two, if you want to have illegal aliens get in-state tuition, but Americans from out-of-state be denied that, which is what California is trying to do, then again, the argument is with Congress, because 10 years ago Congress made it illegal for states to give in-state tuition to illegal aliens, but then not extend it to Americans from out-of-state.

California and Kansas and a number of other states are explicitly in violation of federal law. If you don't like the federal law, try to change it. Don't argue essentially for what amounts to civil disobedience for trying to justify law breaking by the state of California.

GORDON: Professor, taking that a step further and pick on Mr. Krikorian's point of just simply breaking the law. There are those who are going to say even with the college degree, you further break the law, because once, in fact, you graduate, legally, you should not be able to necessarily get the job.

Mr. NOGUERA: Well, that's why I say that you need a more comprehensive policy. We have to provide amnesty so that these students are legalized, and not operating as fugitives in the country. But again, I don't think that--even if we continue to enforce and impose these restrictions, it's not going to eliminate illegal immigration in this country. That's not the force driving it. And so I would say that those who want to take this punitive approach are really missing the boat on the larger issue.

Mr. KRIKORIAN: I'd have to disagree. I mean, in-state tuition, on its own, if we keep everything else in our immigration system in its broke state, obviously isn't going to control illegal immigration. But the way you control illegal immigration--and this is eminently controllable--we have just never bothered to try - is both through conventional enforcement like border enforcement and the rest of it, but also through using what I call firewalls: keeping illegal immigrants from being able to live a normal life here. The point is keeping them from getting a job, which we stopped enforcing years and keeping them from getting driver's license. I'd have to submit that illegal immigrants shouldn't even be allowed to enroll at state universities; forget about in-state tuition.

The point is that this in-state tuition issue, excuse me, is one piece of a broader puzzle. The--what I mean, the professors comments made it very clear that in-state tuition is the camel's nose under the tent to get amnesty for all illegal immigrants. And if that's the argument you want to make, make it, rather than sort of use this as a kind of wedge to try to then make the argument for amnesty for illegals in general.

ED GORDON: Professor, how much do you see this is as the idea of just a part and parcel of the backlash, if you will, on the browning of America?

Professor PEDRO NOGUERA (Steinhart School of Education, New York University): Well, I see it as a part of a, the backlash against immigration, and it's - again, that to me speaks of the hypocrisy of the larger issue because so much of the American economy today is dependant upon immigrant labor, from agriculture to the hotel and restaurant industry. To deny that fact and to allow people to live in this country as fugitives, I think, creates a climate of fear and of repression that no American should stand up for.

Mr. KRIKORIAN: Yeah, (unintelligible)...

GORDON: Mr. Krikorian, let me take you to that same point, if you would. How much would you buy that much of this is a backlash from Americans who do not like what the media calls the browning of America.

Mr. KRIKORIAN: I think that's overplayed, quite honestly. I mean, the fact is that immigration today really isn't all that different from immigration 100 years ago, and even in this context it isn't. In other words, that Hispanic immigrants and Asian immigrants who are essentially, those that become assimilated, speak English without an accident, middle-class, educated people are essentially--they become part of the White mainstream. So what we're seeing today is simply the latest example of immigrant groups climbing up the labor on the back of black Americans. I mean, I don't mean to demagogue this, but that's what it amounts to, and the idea that this is somehow, that immigration some how benefits black Americans is just a fantasy.

GORDON: All right, Professor, 30 seconds. You get the last word.

Prof. NOGUERA: Yeah, I don't--see, I really find that kind of logic very dangerous. This pitting one group against the other. It is not as though immigrants who are coming... First of all, the numbers are very small who are entitled to these, benefitting from the Dream Act if it were enacted, but also, the idea that it's displacing Americans--whether it be African-Americans or others--is simply not the case. There's no evidence that this is true. The number of young people who are going to college has declined, not because of immigrants. It's declined because financial aid and federal support for college tuition has not kept pace with rising tuition.

Mr. KRIKORIAN: There's still a limited number of (unintelligible) colleges...

GORDON: Gentlemen, I've got to stop it there, unfortunately, but this is a continuing and growing problem we'll continue to look at.

Sociologist Pedro Noguera of New York University. He joins us from New York. And Mark Krikorian, executive director for the Center of Immigration Studies in Washington, D.C. I thank you both.

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