AUSTIN, Texas – On the face of it, sending a bill dealing with tuition rates to a border security panel for consideration might seem strange. But, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s office has given an explanation.

“Lt. Governor Patrick considers many factors when deciding to refer senate bills to committees,” Alejandro Garcia, press secretary for Patrick, told the Rio Grande Guardian.

State Sen. José Rodríguez led the criticism of Patrick’s decision to refer Senate Bill 1819 to the Border Security Subcommittee. The legislation would repeal the Texas law that allows some undocumented students to go to a public university or college in Texas at in-state tuition rates.

State Senator José Rodríguez, D-El Paso.
State Senator José Rodríguez, D-El Paso.

“This is a higher education issue or perhaps a State Affairs issue, but it’s not a security issue or a military issue. While Senate committees don’t have jurisdictional statements, common sense should prevail here,” said Rodríguez, D-El Paso.

“There is not one single piece of evidence that suggest DREAMers pose a threat to the border or to Texas. Three other bills with the same or similar language have been referred to higher education or state affairs. Hearing this in Border Security sends an inaccurate message about these students and it sends the unfortunate message that we are playing political games with important legislation.”

Rodríguez said that, ultimately, Texas’ economic future depends on educating young people. “Each person who attends college, gains employment authorization, and obtains a professional job adds value to Texas, whether through their income and spending or through their attractiveness to employers seeking to relocate or expand,” he said.

Rodríguez pointed out that in 2011, immigrants of all status contributed $65 billion in economic output to the state in terms of wages, salary, and business earnings. In 2010, undocumented immigrants in Texas paid an estimated $1.6 billion in state and local taxes. “In part, these taxes help support Texas institutions of higher education,” he said.

Rodríguez said Texas students without status are not a drain on state funds. “They must pay for college like everyone else. In fiscal year 2013, undocumented students contributed $51.6 million in tuition fees, $30.5 million more than the formula funding of $21.1 million.”

Rodríguez also said undocumented students are also not receiving any special treatment. “They must meet the same academic criteria and financial need as any other Texan applying for in-state tuition to attend an institution of higher education.”

The author of SB 1819 is state Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels. Campbell said the legislation is “not about vilifying anyone” but setting good public policy that puts the legal residents of Texas first.

“I feel we need to direct our resources first and foremost to the legal residents of Texas. It’s not meant to harm anyone,” Campbell said, during the 11 hours of debate.

The legislation allowing some undocumented students to attend public universities and colleges in Texas at an in-state tuition rate was passed in 2001. House Bill 1403 was passed by then-state Rep. Rick Noriega, a Democrat from Houston and signed into law by then-Governor Rick Perry. Since then, Perry has steadfastly defended the legislation from attack.

Campbell, though, argued that nobody would have imagined just how many undocumented students would take advantage of Noriega’s bill. Back in 2001 it as about 735 students, she said. Now, she said, that number has mushroomed to 25,000. That is about two percent of the student population in higher education in Texas. “The result of this policy is fewer dollars in grants and in-state tuition benefits available for Texas citizens competing for limited slots to attend our public colleges and universities, versus those who are non-citizens.”

Becky Moeller, president of Texas AFL-CIO, opposed SB 1819. Texas AFL-CIO is a state labor federation consisting of 235,000 affiliated union members who advocate for working families in Texas.

“The pioneering Texas version of the Dream Act has drawn support from both business leaders and labor for good reason: Education is an investment in the future of our workforce,” Moeller said. “Those who live in Texas should have the best possible access to our public colleges and universities. Dream Act students have grown up in Texas, they are part of the fabric of Texas and they should get to pay in-state tuition to build a better future for Texas.”

Moeller said she cannot see how the Dream Act is ‘unfair’ to Texas taxpayers or anyone else, as repeal supporters suggest. “To the contrary, repealing the law would cast out these students by denying them access to in-state tuition rates where they live and leaving no alternative to obtain in-state rates. The Texas AFL-CIO strongly supports the Dream Act along with comprehensive immigration reform. We believe Dream Act students who pledge to seek citizenship should be considered to be part of our state’s plan for success without exceptions, penalties or asterisks.”

Ann Beeson, executive director of the Center for Public Policy Priorities, testified against SB 1819.

“Texas should remain a leader in recognizing the economic value of helping all Texas students complete college, including smart, qualified, aspiring young people who have lived in Texas with their families for over three years and are non-citizens,” Beeson said.

“As workers, entrepreneurs, innovators, taxpayers and consumers, immigrants in Texas are major drivers of the state’s economy. Allowing resident non-citizen students of Texas to pay in-state tuition is good for the Texas economy. In 2013, 24,770 resident non-citizen students paid a total of $51.6M in tuition and fees.”

Beeson said it is important to remember that the current in-state tuition law for resident non-citizen students does not impact admissions of Texas citizen students. “Resident non-citizen students do not ‘take away slots from Texas citizen students,’ as some proponents of SB 1819 have asserted. All students, regardless of immigration or residency status, compete for admission to Texas public colleges and universities.”

After 11 hours of testimony, SB 1819 was voted out of the Border Security Subcommittee on a 2-1 party line vote. State Sen. Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville, voted against the measure while state Sens. Brian Birdwell, R-Waco, and Bob Hall, R-Edgewood, voted for it. The bill now goes to the Committee for Veterans Affairs & Military Installations.