Should an illegal immigrant in California be able to pay lower college tuition than a native-born Ohioan who moves there to go to school? That unfair scenario is one reason Congress will have a tough time overhauling U.S. immigration laws. Moreover, states that allow illegal immigrants to pay the lower rate are sensibly rethinking the issue.
Most public universities and colleges offer the lower rate to in-state students. However, 10 states offer the break to illegal immigrants who have graduated from U.S. high schools or who have obtained the equivalent of a high school diploma, and who sign an affidavit saying they will become citizens. The first state to do that was California, which passed its law four years ago. Virginia recently did the same.
Neither Ohio nor Michigan extends the benefit, fortunately. States that do choose to limit it to students whose immigrant parents are working toward legal status and have paid taxes for three years. The hope is that the students will leave the ranks of the nation's 11 million illegal immigrants and become legal citizens.
But doing that raises a question of fairness.
It's noble to argue that it's not the children's fault they are in America and therefore shouldn't be punished. Sympathy for those students has caused legislators to support the tuition break. The states' laws have been in line with the DREAM Act, a federal bill designed to clear the way for the children to obtain post-secondary education.
However, the bill - DREAM is an acronym for Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors - has lost the backing of a key sponsor, Utah Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch. He now doubts it will pass.
Meanwhile, state college systems like Ohio's are suffering from diminished state support, and they look to students for relief by raising tuition rates. That hurts American students who hope to go to college.
The Bush Administration doesn't make it any better for Americans who finance college education with federal loans, because they could face higher interest rates. That will increase their debt - where's the break for them?
When 400,000 illegal immigrants pour into the country annually, it's impossible to justify U.S. teenagers leaving their home state for college and paying out-of-state tuition rates - often double in-state costs - when illegal immigrants get lower rates.
The discontent is widespread, and growing. Utah, Kansas, and New Mexico legislators are in fierce battles to repeal the benefit. In January, Massachusetts rejected a similar bill. Unhappy citizens in California and Kansas have filed lawsuits, and Kansas state Republican Rep. Becky Hutchins was on target when she said, "There's something wrong with giving a benefit to an illegal that we don't even give to citizens of other states."
Even if they don't like it, most Americans accept the federal law that extends emergency medical services to immigrants. And although it burdens schools, they also accept immigrant children in public schools, the result of a 1982 U.S. Supreme Court ruling. But it's difficult to favor giving illegal immigrants a college tuition break when American citizens get no such help.