MAXWELL:  Immigrant students deserve a chance at college  

4/25/2004 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of The St Petersburg Times Newspaper

I will not use these students’ names because of the politics involved in their plight. I simply will refer to them as Student A and Student B. Both are Latino, both live in Hillsborough County and both lack resident immigrant status. They are graduating from high school this term.

Detractors of their causes often refer to them, among other names, as “illegal immigrants” and “illegal aliens.”

Student A is young man whose parents brought him to the United States from Mexico three years ago. He attended English-language classes for one semester, but he soon qualified for honors classes, including advanced placement English.

Student B is a young woman whose parents brought her to the United States from Mexico five years ago. She completed advanced placement courses in English, English literature, biology, chemistry, physics, American history, French and European history. She will graduate No. 4 out of more than 450 students in her class.

Both students desperately want to attend college. But neither may get the opportunity if Florida’s conservative lawmakers do not soften their contemptible attitude toward immigrant students and do not implement a law that grants these graduating seniors the same low instate tuition rates their peers with resident status enjoy _ discounts amounting to a fourth of full tuition at many colleges.

Last year, the bill that would have given undocumented immigrant students instate tuition discounts died before reaching the House floor, thanks mainly to Speaker Johnnie Byrd, even though Gov. Jeb Bush supported the bill and even though it had passed the Florida Senate.

On Friday, House Bill 119, which gives immigrant students instate discounts, came closer to reaching the House floor with approval in the Appropriations Committee. The fate of the bill again lies with Byrd because he has the power to bring it to the floor for a vote.

Byrd’s spokesman, Tom Denham, said his boss _ whose agricultural district depends on and quietly employs a large number of undocumented workers _ opposes the bill and has philosophical difficulty giving benefits to people who are in the country illegally.

But Rep. Juan Carlos Zapata, R-Miami, the bill’s sponsor, offered the South Florida Sun-Sentinel this common-sense observation: “It’s a fairness issue, something that takes Florida demographic realities into account. We have a large undocumented immigrant population. For us to hold back kids that have done nothing wrong, and have gone through the system and performed, and then put this roadblock in their path doesn’t make sense. And it doesn’t seem like good public policy to me.”

To encourage fellow Republicans to permit a committee vote, according to the Sun-Sentinel, Zapata dropped proposals to grant undocumented students access to state financial aid and scholarships.

Once again, as it often is when immigrant laborers and their children are involved, the Sunshine State is in the darkness. All of the other states with working immigrant populations, including California, Illinois, Oklahoma, New York, Texas, Utah and Washington, have passed similar legislation benefiting such residents.

Donna Perrino, executive director of Engaging Latino Communities for Education at the University of South Florida, a community-focused program sponsored by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to increase the number of Latinos attending college, said that the overwhelming majority of undocumented immigrant students are innocent victims.

These young people did not have a say in coming to America, and they should not be held fully responsible for an immigration status they inherited from their parents. They should not be precluded from the opportunities they deserve from their talents and hard work. Common sense suggests that when immigrant children believe that college is a financially realistic possibility, they will not drop out of school and will become viable members of society.

“Allowing immigrant students to pay instate tuition will not decrease opportunities for other students,” states a position paper by the Florida Immigrant Coalition. “The most qualified students will still be admitted. This bill would give immigrant students the same opportunity as their classmates _ no more and no less.”

What Byrd decides will greatly influence the fates of Student A and Student B and others to follow. My hope is that he remembers that these students have been absorbed into the fabric of U.S. society. They had nothing to do with their parents’ decisions.

They will become taxpayers and may become leaders, like so many other immigrants before them, if they are treated fairly.