rick perry dream act texas

During a Republican presidential primary debate in 2011, former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania exposed the ugly underbelly of the hard right’s opposition to the Texas policy of allowing undocumented immigrant youth to pay in-state tuition at state colleges and universities.

Moderator Wolf Blitzer asked Santorum what Republicans needed to do to attract Latino voters. Santorum responded: “Well, I mean, what Governor Perry’s done is he provided in-state tuition for — for illegal immigrants. Maybe that was an attempt to attract the illegal vote — I mean, the Latino voters.”

Illegal immigrants, of course, cannot legally vote. Santorum was playing to a segment of the Republican primary voters who believe Hispanics have come here illegally, are overwhelming traditional white culture with the Spanish language and Mexican flags, and, ultimately, are receiving government benefits at the expense of established taxpayers.

It was against this cultural backdrop that the Texas Senate Subcommittee on Border Security today took up legislation to eliminate the state law that was signed by Perry in 2001 that grants in-state tuition to undocumented students who have graduated from state high schools.

The legislation by Senator Donna Campbell, SB 1819, would abruptly phase out the program. Any non-legal resident student who has at least 30 credit hours by the end of this summer, could continue to receive in-state tuition until they graduate. But for the high school Class of 2015, the door on affordable higher education will be slammed shut. Campbell said she did not believe in giving in-state tuition to people who are not here legally, and she said people who come to the United States illegally in the future also could benefit from the in-state tuition program. “This is bad policy that will reward illegal immigration in perpetuity,” she said.    

Senator Jose Rodriguez said Campbell’s bill “demonizes those who have earned the right to pay in-state tuition.” He complained about the bill being heard in the border security subcommittee instead of the State Affairs or Higher Education committees. “Perhaps we are playing political games,” Rodriguez said.

(As I post this, the hearing is continuing. To listen in, please, go to the live feed. At a later time, you can call up the subcommittee’s hearing here at the Senate’s archived video. A feed from a news conference by Hispanic lawmakers already is available. )

The in-state tuition law at issue was passed in 2001 with only five negative votes in the Legislature and was signed into law by then-Governor Rick Perry. Under the law, a student is eligible for in-state tuition if they have been in a Texas high school for three consecutive years, have graduated from a Texas high school and sign a sworn affidavit that they will seek legal immigration status as soon as possible. You should know, because of a 1982 U.S. Supreme Court case, Texas has no choice about whether it provides a K-12 education for children, regardless of their immigration status.

Most of the students were brought here as children. Some may even have younger brothers or sisters who were born here and have birthright citizenship. Because of the Texas requirements, no student can just cross an international bridge and receive in-state tuition. Many of these students have parents who received, at best, a grade school education in their native country, and Hispanics have had some of the highest high school dropout rates in Texas. So these students who go to a Texas college are exceptional.   

The state law became controversial during the 2006 battle over immigration reform when a federal bill called the Dream Act was drawn into the congressional debate. A major difference between the federal bill and the state law is the federal bill would grant a path to citizenship, which conservatives saw as amnesty legislation. Hispanic activists confused the situation by starting to describe the Texas law as the state Dream Act. The state of Texas has no ability to grant legal resident status to anyone.

Documents from the Higher Education Coordinating Board show the program has had very little impact on the state as a whole. In state fiscal year 2013, there were 24,770 students taking part in the program, making up about 1.9 percent of the total state higher education population. Of these students, about 17,000 were attending a community college or technical college rather than one of the state’s major universities. The board estimated the total cost to state taxpayers in support of institutions for these students in 2013 was $21.1 million, but the tuition and fees paid by these students was $51.6 million.

Campbell said the program is attracting illegal immigration to Texas. State higher education Commissioner Raymund Paredes told Campbell “there is absolutely no evidence” that the program is acting as a magnet to draw illegal immigration to Texas. Paredes said immigration is driven by an economy with jobs to provide to immigrants.

In the fall of 2011, I had a publishing deal to write a Rick Perry biography during his presidential run. I was trying to write a balanced book on how his policies of low taxes, less regulation and fewer lawsuits helped the economy, although the price was children losing healthcare, rising college tuition and increasing state debt. Chapter 15 was entitled, Rick Perry, caught between Hispanics and a hard right place. The chapter was about how Perry had tried to appeal to Hispanics while at the same time angering them with base issues such as voter I.D. and sanctuary cities. Even as I wrote it, I knew the in-state tuition law was going to give him trouble with the Republican base. Then came the debate of September 23, 2011, when Mitt Romney went after him hard on the issue, claiming that it was a tuition discout of $22,000 a year. “Four years of college, you’re, almost a $100,000 discount if you’re an illegal alien, to go to University of Texas,” Romney said.

Perry defended his position. He said he had done more to secure the border than any other governor and had been fighting the federal government on the issue for a decade. “But if you say that we should not educate children who have come into our state for no other reason than they’ve been brought there by no fault of their own, I don’t think you have a heart. We need to be educating these children because they will become a drag on our society.”

I didn’t even have to wait for the audience to groan to know my book deal was as dead as Perry’s presidential hopes for that year.

The issue didn’t die, though. Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick made rescinding the law a priority of his campaign. Governor Greg Abbott described the law as flawed and would not rule out signing into law a bill eradicating the program if it reached his desk. In an ad on the issue, Patrick’s television commercial named Texas Revolution heroes Sam Houston, William B. Travis, Jim Bowie and David Crocket and said if they were here today, “They’d be proud of Texas but they’d be ashamed of Washington.”  The irony is Bowie was the only one among the four who immigrated to Texas legally. A Mexican law of April 6, 1830, made illegal new immigration from the United States. Houston, Travis and Crocket all arrived after the law took effect. The Handbook of Texas notes that the timing of Travis’ move “made his immigration illegal.”

I am a native Texan who loves this state. I love the wildflowers in the spring. I love the feel of trout or redfish on my line in the Gulf of Mexico. I love the red soil and pine forests of the East and the rolling vistas of the West. I love how cosmopolitan our cities have become. But it pains my heart to see that the attitudes of some of my fellow Texans about African-Americans and Hispanics remain rooted the 1950s. Instead of having giants such as the fictional Bick Benedict willing to fight for his Latina daughter-in-law’s honor, we have Sarges, who reserve the right to reserves the right to refuse service to anyone.

If this law was about free tuition for undocumented children, I would oppose it with you. If was about allowing students to just cross the Rio Grande for the opportunity to pay in-state tuition, I’d back rescinding it. But this law is about allowing students who have lived here three years and graduated from our high schools to PAY in-state tuition. The loss to me of a book deal in 2011 was an inconvenience. The loss of a productive future for a young person who has studied hard to earn a spot in college and then had an education ripped away from them is a tragedy. Rick Perry was right. If you don’t want to educate these children, “I don’t think you have a heart.”