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In higher education, legal citizens should come first

Immigration reform is now front and center as a legislative priority in Washington, D.C. President George W. Bush appropriately pre-empted NBC’s Deal or No Deal on Monday for a primetime address outlining his contentious plan for a comprehensive immigration bill. But while the debate may be centered in our nation’s capital, the recently ended session of the Florida legislature shows just how close to campus this issue comes.

Florida House Rep. Juan Zapata (R-Miami) introduced House Bill 119, which would allow illegal immigrant students to obtain in-state tuition if they attend a Florida High School for three consecutive years and obtain their diploma. Didn’t hear about this legislation? Well, thankfully it didn’t pass, just as it didn’t in the previous four years that Zapata introduce it.

Admittedly, such legislation attempts to tug the heartstrings. Proponents like to point out that the children of undocumented workers had no choice in coming to this country. In addition, they point to academic success stories of these illegal immigrant students who earn stellar GPAs only to find college unaffordable – though this is true for many students with varying backgrounds.

All of these arguments may seem reasonable at first, but HB 119 is still a flawed policy. Rewarding illegal immigrants with in-state tuition ignores the financial burden of out-of-state and international students. What sort of message would passage of this legislation give to foreign students that have navigated the government bureaucracy to attend a state university?

“Sorry, but if you came here illegally years ago, your tuition bill would be a fraction of what it is today.”

Such tuition breaks for illegal immigrants would also increase the already strained higher education system. Increasing demand for state-subsidized higher education with more students qualifying for in-state tuition would lead to higher costs for the state to operate universities. Eventually those costs could trickle down to students in the form of higher tuition. Very few students would like that outcome.

Surely some have already labeled me “anti-immigrant” or other, less-printable adjectives. This is far from the truth. I welcome students of all backgrounds to this or any campus; however, this does not equate with encouraging the breakdown of the rule of law in this country regarding illegal immigration. Federal enforcement in regard to illegal immigration is dysfunctional, but to disregard the process in place undermines the accomplishments of those immigrants who have achieved citizenship.

Look at the personal story of HB 119 sponsor Zapata. He was born in Peru, lived in Columbia, immigrated to Florida as a child and earned American citizenship. He completed his bachelor’s degree in finance and international business from Florida International University. Elected to office in 2002, Zapata has achieved a great deal in Florida and it has been done legally. Why doesn’t he expect the same of others?

Zapata’s actions reek of a totally misguided drive toward entitlement for illegal immigrants. He is not alone in this ideology. Nine states have been more successful in passing such legislation with court battles in some states already underway. Passage of this legislation in Florida could lead to a similar judicial fight ultimately costing Florida taxpayers.

So how should lawmakers such as Zapata approach this delicate issue if they truly want to help illegal immigrant students obtain higher education? Clearly, access to education is crucial in the 21st century and can have benefits both for the individual and their community. A growing movement should call on foreign governments, especially its neighbor to the south, to provide economic opportunities within their own borders. This includes investment in a quality and affordable university system. These countries have a responsibility to their citizens and need to be held accountable.

Florida is a state on the front lines of an immigration debate that is increasingly fractured, divisive and not easily resolved. Allowing illegal immigrant students to receive in-state tuition is simply rewarding illegal activity. HB 119 ignores this fact and should be scrapped for good.

Aaron Hill is a senior majoring in economics.