Children of undocumented immigrants in Florida face hurdles to access higher education. Even if they have been residents of this state for years, these teens would still be charged international student tuition rates to attend one of the schools in the State University System. The assumption behind this unequal access is that, as undocumented immigrants, they should not be privy to benefits that, in theory, should go to those who invest in their local communities as residents and taxpayers. The assumption is that they and their parents are not contributors to the state’s tax base, which research shows to be false.
What do we, as a state, stand to lose from barring these students from equal access to in-state tuition? Imagine investing in the design of a product for 12 years, and after this time, to have that product and what it will yield from those years of investment just disappear. This is exactly what is happening in Florida.
The Supreme Court ruled in the 1982 case Plyler v. Doe that the children of undocumented immigrants could not be held accountable for the actions of their parents. Thus, they were entitled to education in the country’s K-12 system.
In my research we have encountered students who, in spite of assuming leadership roles during their high school years, and graduating in the top 10 percent of their classes, are not given the opportunity to further their academic training, and consequentially are denied the opportunity to give back to their communities through further academic training. And they are forbidden from this simply because their undocumented status keeps them from qualifying for in-state college tuition, even if they have lived here from the age of 2, as one of the participants in my study has.
I am not going to argue the many reasons why this is unjust. I will, however, highlight that Floridians stand to lose the fruits of our investments. Many of these students, some of whom I have had the chance to meet, should they return to their parents’ countries of origin as some of their guidance counselors have advised them, would likely face many hurdles, as they may not know the language or have any family living there any longer. They would be on their own. Yet, if they remain in Florida, they may be demoralized because of the barriers they face in the course of attempting to fulfill their aspirations and reach their full potential. If they are forced to relocate to these countries and can access higher education there, in the future their contributions would be to the economies of these countries. The gains accrued to these countries in the form of human capital would be our loss.
We will lose our investments and their fruits in the name of ensuring that there are no “free riders” taking advantage of our public system of higher education — which these students are clearly not. They are here, and they have been here, some since they were babies. Those who have resided in Florida for most of their lives should be eligible for in-state tuition. Defeat of the Senate bill may push some of these talented students to seek opportunities elsewhere. We can avoid this loss for Florida if the senators pass the bill before them. To not do so is to forfeit our investments.
The writer, a Ph.D., is an associate professor who chairs the Department of Sociology at the University of University of South Florida.