Aid for undocumented students is the right thing to do

April 2, 2013 

At a recent public hearing in Olympia, testimony on House Bill 1817 highlighted contrasting perspectives and opinions about whether to invest in students we have educated in our K-12 schools.

If the Legislature approves HB 1817, undocu-mented students would be included in the pool of students eligible for public financial aid for college, provided they meet the state’s low-income requirements. Additionally, qualifying students must be high school graduates who have lived in the state for at least three years.

At the hearing, the pro side was ably represented by a panel of educators – a Seattle community college president, two school district superintendents and three panels of mostly undocumented students. The students spoke eloquently of being lawyers, engineers and computer scientists in the future.

One University of Washington student said, “When people ask where I am from, I say I was born in Mexico, but assembled in America.” She said she loves this country and wants “nothing more than an opportunity to work hard and contribute to our economy.” She was brought to the U.S. at age 4. Others in her position arrived as infants and toddlers, know only our educational system and, like her, aspire to be citizens.

Opposition at the public hearing included testimony from a panel of individuals from Yakima. Their comments left you pondering if their views and attitudes were like those that permeated society in the 1950s and ’60s.

During that era, governors could stand in front of university doors, swearing to never allow “colored” children to enter. Back then, many applauded and encouraged such actions by elected officials. Fortunately, much of society has evolved from this mentality to a better, healthier place; some have not.

Today, higher education is more costly and more important than at any time in our history. In this technology-and-information age, more home-grown college graduates are needed, not fewer.

It is often said that two-thirds of new jobs being created today require at least two years of post-secondary education. Moreover, shortages exist in critical professional fields such as health care, science, technology, engineering and math. Microsoft, Boeing and other large industries seek changes in immigration laws so they can hire more students educated oversees.

If these dynamics, combined with student testimonies at the hearing, aren’t compelling enough for state Sen. Barbara Bailey to allow HB 1817 to be voted on in the committee she chairs, perhaps she and her colleagues will consider relevant economic benefits to our state due to immigrant workers.

Washington ranks No. 1 in production of several hand-harvested crops, worth nearly $3 billion in 2011. Apples alone were worth $1.8 billion. Farm groups proudly proclaim Washington as the “refrigerator to the world,” as export markets thrive and openly acknowledge that upward of 70 percent of workers are “document challenged.”

The cost of including undocumented students in the eligibility pool for financial aid is estimated at less than 1 percent of the state need-grant fund, or roughly $2.5 million annually – a small fraction of the value the students’ parents are to the agricultural industry, our state and, indeed, the world.

Perhaps it all boils down to perspective. State Rep. Bruce Chandler, R-Granger, who lives in the heart of the Yakima Valley, may have said it best at the hearing: “This bill . . . states a policy for this Legislature and for this state that if you grow up and graduate from a Washington state high school, you will be treated the same as every other graduate.”

“(HB 1817) does not allow any special privileges. It allows students to be an active, engaged and visible part of the community. They can be allowed to be the most and the best that they can be, and that will happen in our community, or not.”

Chandler pointed to the wisdom and fairness of treating all students we educate equally. When we do, we improve opportunity and communities – just as we did when important civil and human rights laws were enacted five decades ago, even in the face of fierce opposition by some in our society.

Ricardo Sanchez is director of Sea Mar Community Health Center’s Latino/a Educational Achievement Project. Email him at ricardosanchez@ seamarchc.org.

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