ATLANTA -- For a few years now, Georgia's public colleges and universities have done the right thing by a handful of deserving students who, although in this country illegally, finished a Georgia high school with good grades and fierce ambition. The Board of Regents has allowed those students to pay the in-state tuition rate to attend public colleges.
It is sound policy. The nation needs more well-educated citizens if it is to maintain its economic hegemony in an era when students in India, China and Malaysia are excelling in physics, engineering, mathematics and entrepreneurship. But the Board of Regents is now backing away from its tuition waivers, citing a new Georgia law designed to crack down on illegal immigrants.
Georgia's regents, who set policy for the state's public colleges and universities, should stick to their ideals. Their generous and open-minded practice, shared by a few other states, is the right thing to do. (A push for in-state tuition for illegal immigrants in the Maryland General Assembly was defeated this year.) It has allowed a few students who have lived in Georgia for years to attend college. The substantially higher rate of out-of-state tuition would put college out of reach for many of those students.
There is no downside in making it easier for illegal immigrants to get a college education, especially if they are inclined to make the United States their home. While many critics worry that undocumented workers drain public resources, these students are pursuing a college degree that would help them become more productive taxpayers. Although many opponents of illegal immigration claim such workers create a permanent underclass, these students plan to join the nation's college-educated middle class.
Associate Vice Chancellor Burns Newsome, legal adviser for Georgia's public colleges, believes the tough new law, which goes into effect in July, would prohibit college presidents from using their discretion to provide tuition waivers to deserving students without papers, a practice that has been extended to a few hundred undocumented students each year since 1999.
But former state Sen. Sam Zamarripa, who helped to soften the rough edges of the new policy, said, "The legislative intent was to provide the regents the flexibility they need to meet the educational needs of the state."
Congress, if it has an ounce of backbone, will make tuition waivers explicitly legal before the new school year begins. The compromise immigration plan before the Senate includes a provision called the "Dream Act," which would allow undocumented students to pay in-state tuition and to get on the path toward citizenship. That makes sense.
The angry rhetoric and apocalyptic predictions from the nativists notwithstanding, immigration reform isn't a difficult or complex matter. It's not nearly as hard as stabilizing the volatile Middle East or shoring up Medicare or ending Americans' addiction to foreign oil. Unlike Great Britain or France, the United States isn't plagued by an angry underclass of first- or second-generation immigrants who are shut out of the economic mainstream and alienated from Western ideals. The Mexican landscapers and Panamanian nannies who have moved to the United States to find work love baseball, Nikes and Wal-Mart. They want to take their children to Disney World, not blow it up.
Having taken advantage of their cheap labor for decades now - eagerly employing them to water our lawns, wash our cars and pluck our chickens - we shouldn't hesitate to make it easy for their children to attend college. Any student dedicated enough to learn a new language, excel in high school and start college is going to be successful somewhere. I'd rather it be here.
Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column usually appears Mondays in The Sun. Her e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.