Illinois took steps last week to become the fifth state to treat the "foreigners" as full-fledged residents for purposes of higher education. Legislatures in six other states this spring are considering the change.
The Illinois House-approved measure would eliminate the need for college students to have a Social Security number as part of their proof of residence. They would only have to show they attended an Illinois high school for at least three years. Non-citizen students also would have to provide an affidavit stating they will apply for U.S. citizenship the first chance they get.
A University of Illinois at Chicago study found that every year about 3,500 non-citizens graduate from Illinois high schools. Nationally, the Urban Institute said as many as 65,000 undocumented immigrants graduate annually from high school.
Edward Acevedo, an Illinois legislator who sponsored the measure, said it is wrong to think of the teenagers as foreign. He calls them "as American as you and I" even though they technically are citizens of other countries.
"We're talking about kids who were brought to this country when they were 2, 3, maybe 4 years old at most," he said. "They don't know any country other than the United States."
Acevedo's effort -- which still needs approval from the Illinois Senate and Gov. Rod Blagojevich before it becomes law -- is not unique.
Similar laws exist in California, New York, Texas and Utah. Legislatures in Florida, Hawaii, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Virginia and Wisconsin are considering the same concept.
Even Congress has a set of four bills that would impact the entire country. Whether the obsession with war on Iraq on Capitol Hill would permit the bills ever to come up for a vote is uncertain.
State officials are more willing to take up the issue because it is perceived as education-related.
While Acevedo admits his initial motivation was to increase the number of Mexican immigrants in college, research showed him the issue is bigger than any one ethnicity.
"I believe what hurt the bill in the beginning is the perception that it was meant only for Latinos," Acevedo said.
"It is accessible to all immigrant groups: Korean, Eastern European, Haitians, every undocumented citizen," he said. "This bill is meant to help everyone and that is why it is now gaining greater support."
Why is this issue a big deal for students?
Publicly funded colleges offer significantly reduced tuition rates to in-state students. Under existing law, students who cannot show residence because they are undocumented residents are treated as out-of-state students.
While rates differ from college to college, the University of Illinois at Urbana charges non-residents $14,352 this year for tuition -- compared to $5,748 for Illinois residents. For people of limited financial means, the difference can decide whether they can even afford to attend college.
Researchers monitoring the issue say they expect it to pass in most, if not all, of the states where it is under consideration. They were encouraged by the ease with which it passed last week in Illinois -- a 112-4 vote, with one legislator voting "present."
That lawmaker, state Rep. Kevin McCarthy of the Chicago suburbs, said he wishes his colleagues would look at the issue more critically.
"Their hearts are in the right place," said McCarthy, who called the bill "a slap in the face" to the people of Mexican, Irish, Polish and Filipino descent for whom he has used his political ties with members of Congress to cut through the "red tape" of dealing with the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
"I want people to come to this country legally, and I'm willing to help them try to do that," McCarthy said while wondering if immigration was too much of a federal issue for legislatures to get involved.
"Maybe we shouldn't be doing anything," he said.
But "doing nothing" is not acceptable to people who see such bills as a long-term way of improving the quality of life in the United States by encouraging people to get a college education.
Such thinking also is the problem, rather than the solution. Focusing too much attention on how to penalize people keeps our society from moving forward.
"These are students who have done everything right, who have the potential to give back to society," said Sandra del Toro of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights in a prepared statement.
"Then suddenly, after high school, they hit a brick wall."
(Hispanidad is a weekly column about the culture of Hispanics and Latinos in the United States, written by Greg Tejeda, a third-generation Mexican-American. Suggestions for topics can be made to email@example.com.)
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