Texas doesn't track legal status of immigrant college students under Perry-backed law
The Dallas Morning News
Aug 17, 2011

USTIN, Texas Illegal immigrants who pay state-resident tuition rates to attend Texas colleges are required under a law signed by Gov. Rick Perry to promise that they will apply for legal status.

The arrangement saves them thousands of dollars, but no one - not the colleges, not the state higher education agency, and not the Legislature or governor's office - checks whether those students are holding up their end of the bargain.

Affidavits signed by students, pledging they will apply for permanent residency as soon as they are eligible, are kept on file at each individual institution, and universities report the number of "affidavit students" to the state's Higher Education Coordinating Board. But that's as far as it goes.

"The law does not dictate in statute that there be any sort of follow-up or audit," said Dominic Chavez, spokesman for the board. "Universities may not have those kinds of resources," he said, adding that it would also go beyond the agency's expertise to track students through the complicated federal immigration system.

Perry has defended the law, which he signed in 2001, as a way to ensure that talented students are moving toward productive, legal status. But the law and the lack of follow-through are sure to pose a political problem with some conservative Republicans as he campaigns for the GOP presidential nomination.

Catherine Frazier, Perry's deputy press secretary, said it would be in the best interest of universities to follow up with students.

"The governor would certainly support measures to require enforcement of following up," Frazier wrote in an email. Perry "expects that universities would be following up as it is in their best interests" she added.

University officials at the University of Texas, Texas A&M and Texas Tech all confirmed that there is no follow-up system in place.

"There doesn't really appear to be any value in doing that," said Joe Pettibon, associate vice president of academic services at A&M. "If students ask us about the (citizenship) process, we make sure to direct them to the right places, but we don't have a specific follow-up. That's sort of outside of our scope."

Michael Orr, associate director of admissions at UT, said the extent of UT's role in the process is validating that students meet the requirements for in-state tuition rates. He added that universities wouldn't necessarily know what to do with the information even if they tracked students.

According to the Higher Education Coordinating Board, more than 16,000 "affidavit students" attended Texas public institutions in fiscal year 2010. That encompasses students who are not citizens or permanent U.S. residents, a spokesman said.

Opponents of the law say the requirement to apply for residency is a powerless provision meant to make the act appear to have more muscle than it does.

"It's a pernicious measure, a way of sneaking the football another couple of yards down the field," said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies, which favors tighter control on immigration. "No one ever intended to follow up on these kids. It's an extraneous and ridiculous provision in the law. If you're going to subsidize illegal alien young people, then just do it."

Perry made Texas the first state in the nation to enact an in-state tuition law. In a speech on a border summit in 2001, Perry said Texas must open the doors of higher education to children of immigrants.

He defended it as recently as last year - citing the provision requiring students to seek legal status.

Perry said during a 2010 gubernatorial debate that the Texas Education Agency, which oversees primary and secondary education, follows up with the students.

"It is my understanding, yes sir, absolutely," Perry said when asked if the state follows up to verify that the application has been made for residency. "TEA should have been."

Tea party activists say the law is a problem for Perry.

"This is not going to play well at all," said Dallas tea party member Ken Emanuelson. The governor has "paid a lot of lip service to immigration enforcement, but his actual policies aren't as sound."

The governor needs to follow through on his tough border-security rhetoric, he said.

"The governor's strategy is to blow out there with a lot of hype and great speeches and hope to become the de facto nominee before anyone takes too close of a look," Emanuelson said. "They know they have some warts."

State Rep. Roberto Alonzo, a Democrat, said the concern in Texas isn't about whether anyone monitors students applying for residency, but is a larger argument over letting illegal immigrants students go to college at a state rate.

"While these students are here, it is our responsibility to make sure they're educated," said Alonzo, a strong backer of the tuition law. "We don't need to monitor these students because it will be in their best interest to apply for residency. I'm glad Texas has continued to keep the law."

But Emanuelson said giving students a college degree at a lower price tag and not ensuring they pursue citizenship works against the interests of those here legally.

"The reality is that we're taking a seat in a university and spending state resources to help someone get a degree, and that person gets out of school and can't work," he said. "That's a huge concern."

Meanwhile, Perry, campaigning in Nashua, N.H., sidestepped questions Wednesday about how precisely he would change immigration policy, though he warned against trying to remove illegal immigrants en masse.

"You're not going to ship 12 million people back to whatever country they come from," Perry said. He added that until the border is secure enough to keep out illegal immigrants, "you can have all the immigration policies you want, they're not worth the paper they're written on."

A Nashua business owner pressed him for details, but Perry didn't elaborate. He did, however, repeat his opposition to a continuous fence or wall at the U.S. border with Mexico, calling the idea "ridiculous."

The business owner, George Katis, praised Perry's response and said the governor seemed to be much more moderate than the right of Attila the Hun" image portrayed in the media.

Staff writer Todd J. Gillman contributed to this story.

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