Iowa Democrats seek clear tuition rules for immigrants

DES MOINES – Young people in Iowa who entered the country illegally and have been granted temporary residency through a presidential order are getting work permits and driver’s licenses, but questions remain about their access to in-state tuition at public universities and community colleges.

Some Democrats in the state Senate want to clear up any confusion. They have introduced legislation that would ensure in-state tuition at community colleges and state universities for students who are accepted, meet residency requirements and commit to trying to pursue legal citizenship.

“We have a workforce shortage in Iowa. What employers tell us is they don’t have the skilled workers to meet their needs,” said bill sponsor Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City. “We’re being terribly short sighted not to grab every one of these kids and make a path for them.”

The legislation would apply to the young people who qualify for President Barack Obama’s deferred-action program, announced last June. They are sometimes known as DREAMers, after the proposed DREAM Act, which would offer citizenship to young illegal immigrants who were brought into the country by their parents.

Currently, there is no explicit ban on offering in-state tuition at state universities to students without citizenship or permanent residency. But Bolkcom said the legislation is a way to clarify and publicize the rules.

“I’m looking to clarify what appears to be murky and raise this issue up as an issue that’s important to our economic future,” Bolkcom said. “Kids get advice from their school counselor, their adviser, their favorite teacher. I think we want the whole constellation of educators in Iowa to know that these kids have a future in Iowa.”

A previous attempt to pass a similar law in Iowa failed in 2004 and it does not appear that this bill has better chances. House Speaker Kraig Paulsen, R-Hiawatha, said that while he supported the previous bill, he would not back this effort.

“I think that was what seemed like a good idea at that time. I would probably come to a different conclusion today,” Paulsen said. “The federal government needs to resolve the immigration issue.”

Twelve states currently have laws guaranteeing in-state tuition to students who are not permanent legal residents, if they meet certain admissions standards and residency requirements, said Michelle Camacho Liu, a policy specialist with the National Conference of State Legislators.

At Iowa State University, annual in-state tuition starts at $7,724, compared with $19,838 for out-of-state students. At the University of Iowa, it’s roughly $8,057 for in-state and $26,279 for out-of-state. Students with temporary residency status said the difference in price tags is huge and it’s hard to know what to expect.

“The issue would be that not everyone knows about it. And the process is complicated,” said Hector Salamanca, 19, a volunteer with the American Friends Service Committee who has temporary residency status. He is finishing an associate’s degree at Des Moines Community College, where he is paying an in-state rate.

Salamanca, who lives in Des Moines, said he has been accepted to Drake University and hopes to get a bachelor’s degree, but he’s not sure how he will pay for it, even with scholarships, because he’s not eligible for federal financial aid. An in-state rate at a public school would be attractive, he said.

“I’d still have to pay some out of pocket, but it would be more affordable,” he said.

Still, Salamanca said he was pleased to be making some progress, like recently getting his driver’s license in Iowa.

“I think I was the only person in the (Department of Transportation) smiling,” Salamanca said. “I’ve always heard people complaining about the DOT, but I was very happy.”

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.