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Plyler’s Legacy Goes to College

30 Years of Plyler v Doe graphic
30 Years of Plyler v Doe graphic
Michael Tan,
Deputy Director,
ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project
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June 13, 2012

Adriana Sanchez, whose story was recently reported by the Associated Press, was brought from Mexico to Central California at age twelve by her parents, who are both farm workers. The family overstayed their visas. As the AP explained:

Even though Sanchez excelled in high school, she was in the country illegally, lacked a Social Security number and work permit, and didn’t qualify for financial aid. But she volunteered hundreds of hours and paid her way through college and graduate school with a dozen internships. Now 24, Sanchez graduated last week from California State University, Fresno with a master’s degree in International Relations, a full-time job [as an independent contractor] and no loans to repay.

Adriana’s story is typical of thousands of other undocumented youth—or DREAMers—working hard to achieve their academic and career goals and contribute to America. These students are the direct beneficiaries of the Supreme Court’s decision in Plyler v. Doe guaranteeing a basic K-12 education to all children residing in the United States, regardless of their immigration status.

Plyler set the stage for today’s battles in higher education, as increasing numbers of undocumented students pursue a college degree. These students are impressive (for more examples, check out last year’s New American Scholars named by Educators for Fair Consideration). They have beaten tremendous odds—including language and cultural barriers and poverty—to graduate high school. Yet many of these students face intractable barriers to getting a college diploma. Undocumented youth in most states are charged prohibitive out-of-state tuition rates, and do not qualify for public financial aid, such as grants, work study, and government loans. The result is that many talented and industrious students are denied higher education.

The good news is that states across the country have chosen to make public colleges and university more affordable—and thus more accessible—to undocumented youth. Currently, thirteen states—including California, New York, and Texas—have laws or policies on the books providing in-state tuition rates to students who graduate from a high school in the state and meet other requirements, regardless of immigration status. California has recently gone even further, extending non-state funded scholarships and state-funded financial aid.

The ACLU has played a key role in promoting these laws and defending them in the courts and legislatures. In 2007, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit dismissed a challenge to Kansas’s tuition equality law. And in 2010, the California Supreme Court unanimously upheld California’s statute, holding that it does not conflict with federal law—an important precedent for similar challenges around the country.

Yet unfortunately, several states have taken the opposite tack, banning undocumented students from receiving in-state tuition or, worse, denying them admission altogether. Indeed, just last month, the Alabama legislature amended its omnibus anti-immigrant bill to make clear that it does not want undocumented youth on its college campuses.

Laws like Alabama’s admissions ban are short-sighted and unfair. Making higher education accessible to undocumented students means capitalizing on our investments in their K-12 education. Because college graduates earn higher wages, they generate more revenue in income, sales, and property taxes, and stimulate growth through increased spending. A better-educated population also increases America’s competitiveness in the global economy. Moreover, many students may very well regularize their immigration status under existing or future federal laws like the DREAM Act, which would afford a crucial path to citizenship for immigrants who came to the United States as children and graduate from high school.

The DREAMers’ have earned their right to a college degree, and by helping them through the university gate, we enable them to contribute meaningfully to our future. Undocumented students need us, and we need them.

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