A lack of standard policies makes it more difficult for undocumented immigrants in Michigan and their children to attend college. Courtesy Thinkstock
LANSING — A college acceptance letter isn’t always all it’s cracked up to be.
For many undocumented immigrants in Michigan and their children, the application process is just one hurdle on the road to a college education.
“They’ve invested so much in their education, but when they come to go to college, that’s when the (door) closes on them,” said Jose Franco, founder of One Michigan, a Detroit-based group that works for immigrant rights.
Some Michigan public universities offer in-state tuition rates for undocumented students. But many four-year colleges and most community colleges don’t — even though students may have lived their entire life in the state.
Even tuition at colleges that offer the lower rate may be too high for such students. Calls usually start rolling in during springtime from undocumented students worried about paying for college, Franco said.
Recently, some Michigan universities have changed their policies to offer in-state tuition rates to these students. University of Michigan, Wayne State University, Western Michigan University, Eastern Michigan University, Kellogg Community College and Washtenaw Community College all offer in-state tuition based on Michigan residency and attendance at Michigan high schools.
Saginaw Valley State University has an informal policy allowing the university president to approve in-state tuition for migrant workers’ children. But many Michigan schools do not, including Michigan State University, Central Michigan University and Grand Valley State University.
Rep. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor, has introduced a bill to offer in-state tuition to children of undocumented workers who entered the U.S. with their families as children. It remains stalled in the House Committee for Government Operations.
Other sponsors of the bill included Reps. Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit; Adam Zemke, D-Ann Arbor; David Rutledge, D-Superior Township; Brandon Dillon, D-Grand Rapids; Sam Singh, D-East Lansing; Andy Schor, D-Lansing; and Sen. Jim Ananich, D-Flint, who was a House representative at the time.
Irwin said he has little hope the bill will be successful in the Republican legislature.
Committee chair Rep. Pete Lund, R-Shelby Township, did not return a request for comment.
Seventeen states have approved similar measures, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Arizona, Georgia and Indiana prohibit the practice.
Supporters of such legislation point to the students’ lack of choice if they were taken to the U.S. as children and the negative impact of having many people without access to education in the country, said Anna Pegler-Gordon, an immigration expert who has taught immigration policy as an associate professor at MSU.
Opponents believe accommodating unauthorized immigrants will encourage illegal immigration, Pegler-Gordon said.
In 2010, Michigan had an estimated 150,000 undocumented workers, according to the Pew Research Center.
They could be even more valuable to the country if given a chance, said Aurora Kamimura, research associate at the National Forum on Higher Education for the Public Good, an affiliate of University of Michigan.
“We are limiting the capacity of very capable members of our society to contribute to our society,” Kamimura said.
But critics of such policies say it is Michigan residents who are limited by the undocumented workers and not the other way around.
In 2010, Michigan taxpayers spent $929 million on undocumented residents for services including education, welfare and medical care, said Kristen Williamson, press secretary for the Washington, D.C., nonprofit Federation for American Immigration Reform.
“When Michiganders are struggling to provide for their children and pay for their education, that should really be the focus of Michigan lawmakers — not those who have broken the law to be here,” Williamson said.
But these students and their families also pay state and local taxes, Kamimura said.
Undocumented people in Michigan contributed almost $126 million in taxes in 2010, according to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy.
Supporters say there are positive, long-term economic implications of what educated undocumented residents can contribute.
The 2013 change in tuition at University of Michigan came after attempts to clarify tuition guidelines as the result of input from military veterans and undocumented students, Rick Fitzgerald, associate director of public affairs at the university, wrote in an email.
“Michigan can ill-afford to leave talent untapped or to turn it away as we gear up for the emerging knowledge economy,” Fitzgerald said.
“The population of Michigan is simultaneously decreasing and aging,” he said. “If they don’t have viable options in Michigan, determined, college-ready undocumented students who have lived all or a substantial portion of their lives in Michigan will follow their dreams to states that do offer these opportunities.”
Gov. Rick Snyder recently created an Office for New Americans to lure immigrants to the state because of their ability to create job-producing businesses. But Snyder officials said this issue is for university boards and not the state government.
The new office will focus on legal immigrants, said Dave Murray, the governor’s deputy press secretary.
Michigan State University — U-M’s in-state rival — does not offer in-state tuition for anyone in the U.S. illegally. There are no plans to change the policy, although the university enrollment office constantly reviews its policies to better serve students, said MSU media communications manager Jason Cody.
A representative for GVSUwas unaware of any discussion to change its policy, in which undocumented students in the state are treated as international students and pay out-of-state tuition.
Although in-state tuition is one step universities need to take, it might not be enough, said Meg Scribner, a member of the Coalition for Tuition Equality at U-M. Many undocumented students and children of undocumented workers might not be able to afford even the in-state tuition rates and they don’t have access to financial aid, she said.
The coalition is working with the University of Michigan for financial aid for these students, she said.
Often, undocumented students have trouble getting jobs because of their legal status, Franco said. While his organization attempts to find scholarships for these students, Franco said many don’t pursue four-year colleges and instead attend community college if they can. Many quit school and enter the labor force.
Those who do attend a four-year institution often do so at private universities where they can receive scholarships, Franco said.
Many undocumented immigrants, he said, are completely unaware they can receive any form of college education.
Pegler-Gordon said it’s not just Michigan’s economy that suffers from undocumented students’ lack of access.
“The (classroom) experience is not reflective of the American experience,” she said. “Whatever we think should be done about it, we know there are a large number of immigrants in the United States.”