Progressive Voices

Immigrant higher ed proposal: A bill in search of a problem

Well, the North Carolina General Assembly is back in session and, as always, lawmakers are already generating a lot of new, proposed legislation. Unfortunately, as is also always the case, a lot of these proposals amount to bills in search of a problem. Take, for example, the latest proposal by Rep. George Cleveland of Onslow County (and several other House members) on the subject of undocumented students.

The bill would ban undocumented youth from attending our state’s public universities and community colleges. Rep. Cleveland is apparently fuming over a supposed “subsidy” that undocumented immigrants are getting to attend college. What he said exactly (to a supporter of college access) was that: “I find it revolting that an American thinks that we should financially support people that cannot legally work in this country through taxpayer subsidized education.”

The truth of the matter is actually contrary to Cleveland’s assumption. Two years ago the community college system learned that citizens were the ones getting the “subsidy,” not the other way around. It turns out that the out-of-state tuition undocumented immigrants pay is a revenue source for the state. In fact, a study conducted by JBL Associates two years ago found that at only one community college in the whole state—Pamlico Community College—did it cost more than tuition to educate a student.

Citizen students are, in fact, making plenty off of their undocumented classmates. Not only do they get the tuition subsidies, but they also get all of the financial aid that undocumented immigrants are ineligible for. Not to mention their undocumented classmate can be bumped out of registration if their citizen friend wants the seat.

And since the North Carolina Department of Revenue collects income tax from undocumented immigrants using the Individual Taxpayer Identification Number, or ITIN (a document that the Internal Revenue Service has gladly issued to immigrants without visas since 1996) citizen students are getting to use all of the entitlement programs that immigrants pay into but are banned from ever accessing.

This is very much a source of revenue for state governments, and it’s not a small amount. In 2006, the Texas Comptroller calculated that the state made $424.7 million more in state revenues (including sales tax and school property tax) off of undocumented immigrants than they used in state services, including education and health care.

What’s actually “revolting” is that Cleveland, who is drafting immigration policy, obviously knows none of this. He’s attacking immigrant youth at a time when it’s politically profitable to do so, but the truth is that his bill is bad for the state and bad for democracy.

If the state really wants to be forthright, honest and consistent, any legislation to limit immigrant admission to higher education ought to come attached with the promise to refuse all income tax revenues derived from the ITIN. And lawmakers ought to know and admit that deporting hundreds of thousands of taxpayers would only make the state’s $3.7 billion budget shortfall dramatically larger.

Right now we have a system where someone’s labor is legal but the person is not. Worse yet, Rep. Cleveland and others want to make sure these young people remain as a kind of hostage workforce: immigrant youth who had no say in their family’s decision to come to the United States and little or no connection to their country of origin have no choice but to stay in the home they know. We have nothing to gain by forcing them to leave the U.S. (or by them staying and falling prey to exploitive employers).

In short, though no doubt sincere, Cleveland’s proposal is badly misguided and based on false assumptions. If the new Speaker of the House, Thom Tillis, wants to demonstrate real leadership on tough issues, he will make sure that this ill-conceived idea does not advance.

Domenic Powell works with the pro-immigration reform group the NC Dream Team.

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