Wrong year for grants to undocumented students

The News TribuneMarch 14, 2013 

Need grants for undocumented students is a good idea whose time hasn’t come. It shouldn’t be holding up other college assistance legislation, as seems to be happening in the state Senate.

The argument against expanding financial aid to young illegal immigrants this year can be summed up in a single word: McCleary.

In last year’s McCleary decision, the state Supreme Court ordered the Legislature to fully fund basic education. Lawmakers already face a projected deficit of nearly $1 billion, and some believe it would take yet another $1 billion to begin meeting the constitutional mandate for a properly funded K-12 system.

Advocates believe it would cost the state less than $5 million to offer undocumented students grants for college, which average $3,600 apiece. But even a few million dollars is a lot of money right now; those dollars could go a long way toward helping a larger number of people – by extending Medicaid dental coverage to adults, for example.

The notion of need grants for illegal immigrants is easy to vilify, but there’s a good case for it.

Only a minority – perhaps a small minority – of them would be eligible in the first place. They would have to qualify for in-state tuition, and they’d also have to meet all the requirements for President Barack Obama’s plan to exempt certain young illegal immigrants from deportation.

That plan is meant for people younger than 32 who were smuggled into the country as children. They must be pursuing an education or serving in the military. They must pass a criminal background check. For in-state tuition, they must be well-established residents of Washington.

These are good, ambitious kids, few of whom chose to enter the country illegally. They and their parents work here and pay taxes here. Most are American and Washingtonian to the core.

But Washington has not recovered from the 2008 bust, and revenues remain in short supply. As things stand, 32,000 citizens and legal residents are being denied need grants they are eligible for. There’s no clear plan for spreading existing financial aid rationally and fairly. The Legislature’s immediate priority should be figuring out how to help all needy students; expanding eligibility to a new group without adequate funding is a solution to nothing.

In fact, the in-state tuition that undocumented students already qualify for is an immense grant of assistance in its own right. Next school year, for example, the University of Washington expects to charge state residents $12,383 in tuition; it expects to charge out-of-state students $29,938.

For the last five years, lawmakers have been forced to choose between worthy causes and emergencies. Funding for basic education and mental health care are emergencies. Financial aid for undocumented college students is a worthy cause. This is not the year for it.

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