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A Petty Lesson 

Efforts to deny higher education to undocumented students is not just mean-spirited. It’s also self-defeating.

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Late last year, the Utah Legislature’s Executive Appropriations Committee was shocked to discover that, as the years go by, fewer and fewer young people in our state show any interest in earning a college or university degree. A mere 10 years ago, 41 percent of Utahns between the ages of 25 and 34 held four-year degrees from institutions of higher learning. According to a recent report, that percentage sits at 26 percent.

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Let’s take a moment to emphasize that number: Slightly more than one quarter of Utah’s young adults care enough about higher education to finish their degree. Our lawmakers found themselves panicked. “What can we possibly do,” they asked, “to make higher education more attractive to our young people so that companies will hire them, so that our economy will prosper?nn

The answer to that question hasn’t been forthcoming. But don’t worry, because our Legislature’s currently brewing the answer to what many on the Capitol see as a more pressing question. Namely, “What can we do to discourage higher education among undocumented students?”

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While the incentives for higher education among Utah’s overwhelmingly Anglo population no doubt requires careful study and rumination, the disincentive for higher education among the children of our state’s undocumented workers is, of course, a slam-dunk: We make it more difficult for these people by making them pay $5,237 more per semester for in-state tuition, rather than the lighter burden of $2,447 per semester for 16 credit hours at the University of Utah.

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Why do that? Because they’ve broken the law by living and working here illegally. Never mind the fact that, in the vast majority of cases, it was their parents who broke the law by living and working here illegally. The children must pay for the sins of their parents. We must be firm. We must uphold the rule of law. And don’t you know it is the law? A 1996 immigration law requires that if states grant in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants, it must also offer in-state rates to out-of-state applicants, too.

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Every one of these arguments is pure, unadulterated horses't. I’ll state here and now that, if the 1996 immigration law requires what the anti-immigration crowd contends, then the law itself ought to be changed.

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Call me crazy. I’m one of those whacked-out basket cases who believe educated people make my community, my state and perhaps even the entire world, a saner, more civilized place. And if Utah’s college-age residents no longer care about higher education in the numbers they once used to, let’s help deliver that opportunity to those who want it'undocumented parents or not, undocumented or not.

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I’m not talking about welfare benefits, retirement benefits, medical care or any other perk so many people want to deny undocumented workers. I’m talking about education'an asset people earn through their own hard work and study. If undocumented students care enough about that precious commodity to earn it themselves, it beggars belief that sane, compassionate people would want to make that education harder to attain. Perhaps these people like the feeling of keeping other people down where they belong, in their place. America is the land of opportunity, of the world’s greatest hopes and dreams? Well, I guess we all thought wrong.

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None of this, of course, will stop our Legislature from going after a 2002 law that makes it easier for the children of Utah’s undocumented workers to attain an education. This will be the fourth time our lawmakers have gone after this law, one of the more humane pieces of legislation our Legislature has cared to pass. And none of this, of course, will stop the anti-immigration crowd, still talking themselves blue in the face over the recent raid at Hyrum’s Swift & Co. meat-packing plant, pizza chains accepting pesos, or how they can’t stand the sound of people speaking Spanish.

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There’s a legitimate debate out there regarding our country’s immigration policy, the most effective way to draft a guest-worker program, and what benefits our society should or shouldn’t offer people who work in this country illegally. Immigration opponents make valid points regarding the rule of law. If the law protects us all, it behooves all of us to obey and enforce it. No problem there.

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The problem with denying in-state tuition to undocumented students, however, is its mean-spirited, self-defeating nature. The anti-immigrant crowd complains about immigrants who won’t speak our language, won’t learn our history, won’t, as they say, “respect our American culture.” In short, they complain about people who, they contend, will not assimilate.

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But when presented with students who’ve learned English well enough to attend American universities, where they’re immersed and assimilated into American history and culture, the anti-immigrant crowd has the unmitigated gall to still cry foul. This says something very revealing about certain elements in the anti-immigration crowd, and it isn’t pretty. The anti-immigrant crowd rejects not only undocumented workers toiling in such unsavory jobs as meat packing. They’ll reject even an undocumented, English-speaking student who wants a university education. It sure is easy to complain about “lazy, unskilled immigrants who can’t even speak English” if you work to keep them that way.

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This is the height of pettiness. Worse, it threatens to lock us in a cycle of self-defeating xenophobia. Immigrants can rightly accuse residents of trying to keep them down, while anti-immigrant forces give themselves yet another opportunity to characterize undocumented workers as a drag on our economy and resources. Never mind the fact that this characterization is one they themselves carried out by design.

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