For the third time in three sessions, the Oregon House of Representatives this week will vote on whether to grant in-state tuition rates to undocumented students.
The bill is controversial because it grants non-citizens a benefit commonly associated with citizenship, but its most compelling purpose is neither benevolence nor fairness. The bill merits approval because it would strengthen the state's workforce.
House Bill 2787 would make college more accessible to students who attend school in the country for at least five years, study at an Oregon high school for at least three, and enroll in a state college or university within three years after graduating. To qualify, students must apply for citizenship or promise to do so as soon as they are eligible. Those restrictions ensure that the legislation would boost the college aspirations of a specific group of people: young adults who are not responsible for their migration and are likely to spend their working lives in Oregon.
In Central Oregon, passage of the bill would mean that graduates of Bend-La Pine, Redmond and Sisters high schools would pay the same tuition as their longtime local classmates, giving them similar opportunities despite their ineligibility for federal or state grants or scholarships. As things stand, undocumented students pay roughly three times the in-state tuition rate at Oregon colleges and universities, including Central Oregon Community College and OSU-Cascades Campus.
Opponents say the bill would reward illegal immigration. It would not, of course, directly benefit those who chose in adulthood to cross borders illegally. It would simply eliminate one of the penalties young people now pay for the actions of their parents.
Other critics, especially Californians seeking regional alternatives to their state's increasingly expensive and restrictive universities, say granting in-state tuition to non-citizens would be unfair to U.S. citizens saddled with out-of-state rates, but Oregon's overarching purpose here is not to honor some right obtained by dint of belonging here; it's to educate the engineers, business people, teachers, farmers and nurses who will serve Oregonians in the years to come. While most out-of-state students at Oregon universities will return to their home states, undocumented students with Oregon residency and Oregon ties are likely to stay.
Many of the 164,000 Oregonians who are out of work now object to the state helping non-citizens compete with them for scarce jobs, but protecting their hiring edge over citizens-in-the-making does not serve the collective good. All Oregonians will benefit as students specified by the bill meet the demands—and reap the rewards—of professionalism and high-tech industries.
That's why the business community is behind this legislation. Associated Oregon Industries, which advocates public policy on behalf of thousands of member companies, supports the bill because workforce development reduces businesses' need to recruit employees from out of state.
We commend Rep. John Huffman, R-The Dalles, for coming around on this legislation. Huffman opposed tuition-equity proposals in the 2009 and 2011 sessions but changed his mind after holding town hall meetings in Madras.
Rep. Jason Conger, R-Bend, has voiced reservations about the legislation, saying it fails to address larger elements of the immigration issue. In today's political climate, change is more often incremental than sweeping, so we urge Mr. Conger to consider the overriding merit of developing a 21st-century workforce and vote for the bill this week.