PROVIDENCE, R.I. – When Rhode Island became the 13th state to allow in-state tuition for illegal immigrants at public colleges, supporters heralded the move as one that would give students the kind of advanced education they need to succeed in the workforce.
But students who are not here legally may still face a major obstacle even with the benefit of a college degree: many have no immediate pathway to legal status and, under current federal immigration law, employers cannot legally hire them.
“I know of students who have graduated magna cum laude and top honors in their colleges, but right now they’re working minimum wage in restaurants,” said Antonio Albizures-Lopez, 20, who came to the U.S. from Guatemala when he was 1.
Albizures-Lopez, who is pursuing legal residency, said the best solution is passage of federal legislation, known as the DREAM Act, which provides a pathway to legal residency for college students.
The Rhode Island Board of Governors for Higher Education, which oversees the state’s three public higher education institutions, unanimously approved in-state tuition for illegal immigrants last week, effective in the fall of 2012. The General Assembly had failed repeatedly to take action on legislation that’s been introduced year after year.
Eleven states – California, Connecticut, Illinois, Kansas, Maryland, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, Texas, Utah and Washington – have laws allowing the children of illegal immigrants to receive in-state rates if they meet certain requirements, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Research varies on how much resident tuition rates for illegal immigrants increase enrollment. A 2010 paper co-written by Aimee Chinn, an economist at the University of Houston, did not find a sizable increase overall for 18- to 24-year-olds in the 10 states studied, though it did find that Mexican men in their 20s attended at modestly higher rates. It also found that even in-state tuition may still be too expensive, especially since illegal immigrant students do not qualify for federal education aid.
By contrast, a study this year by the Latino Policy Institute at Roger Williams University in Rhode Island, which looked at an array of research on the issue, said that in-state tuition has led to an enrollment increase among illegal immigrants, on average, of 31 percent in the places it has been implemented.
The Urban Institute has estimated that 65,000 illegal immigrants graduate from high school in the U.S. every year.
But even if more students go on to attend public colleges and universities with the benefit of in-state rates, a big question remains: how will they fare in the workforce after they graduate, even with a degree that traditionally makes it easier to get the kind of high-skill, high-paying job not available to those who finish only high school?
“Even with a college degree, there hasn’t been a more general immigration reform that would enable these kids to get a job once they have their degrees,” Chinn said.
Amanda Pereira, 18, came to the U.S. illegally at the age of 6 from Brazil with her family.
“In a way, it is going to be another dead end,” she said. “But in a way it is a help because at least they got through another four years and got their education, so they can find ways to possibly get legalized through an employer.”