The school of hard knocks

A new generation of illegal immigrants is poised to graduate from U.S. colleges -- but they won't be eligible to get a job.

Published April 27, 2005 6:10PM (EDT)

The enduring stereotype of the unskilled illegal immigrant is being turned on its head as a first generation of students without American citizenship graduates from U.S. colleges this spring. Nine states now have laws that permit illegal immigrants to pay resident tuition to attend a public college; the first law was introduced in Texas in 2001. In terms of enrollment, immigrants are treated the same as American students -- except that they're not allowed to find work once they graduate.

Tito Guerrero, president of Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas, is worried about the unprecedented situation. "We have been living blissfully for four years," he told the Wall Street Journal. "Now these kids are graduating, and I don't know what to tell them."

Under current federal law, companies can sponsor a skilled foreign worker for a green card, but skilled illegal immigrants who were trained at American colleges will still be shut out. They've paid thousands of dollars of in-state tuition, but can't even get a paid internship. Now, another six states are considering legislation to admit such students who have already gone to high school in the U.S. (by law, all students are entitled to attend elementary and secondary school for free). The Dream Act, due to be reintroduced by Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, would make minors who attend college or join the armed services eligible for permanent residency, provided they had arrived in the U.S. at least five years prior and had also attended an American high school.

Sen. Hatch introduced the first version of the Dream Act in 2001. The most recent version had strong bipartisan support, but given the tempestuous debate over immigration, the bill may continue to be stalled.

Critics of the law say taxpayers shouldn't be burdened with tuition for illegal immigrants. "We can't hold taxpayers accountable to providing discounted education to people in this country illegally," Republican Rep. Steve King of Iowa told the Wall Street Journal. King acknowledged that such students would be likely to pay more taxes as professionals than as blue-collar workers if they remained in the U.S. Still, he said, "we can't make economic arguments" in favor of illegal immigration.

It may be too late for that. Illegal immigrants have already proven to be among the most reliable contributors to the nation's coffers -- through Social Security and Medicare taxes deducted from their payrolls after they submit fake Social Security numbers to gain employment. (Not to mention the vast, inexpensive labor force they supply for American agricultural and service industries.) Legions of illegal workers, arguably indispensable to the U.S. economy, continue to have to circumvent labor laws -- and for now, the new, better-educated graduates will have to do the same.

By Julia Scott

San Francisco-based freelance journalist Julia Scott writes about water and energy issues for various publications. She also covers the environment for Bay Area News Group, a chain of newspapers in Northern California.

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