LITTLE ROCK — A proposal to extend in-state tuition rates at state colleges and universities to some immigrant students is advancing in the Arkansas Legislature after past efforts faltered, including a high-profile push by former Republican presidential hopeful and ex-Gov. Mike Huckabee.
A bill approved by the House and pending before a Senate Committee would require public colleges and universities to classify students as in-state for tuition purposes if they've resided in the state for at least three years when they apply for admission and have graduated from a high school or received a high school equivalency diploma in the state.
The change means many currently not considered residents, including students who came to the U.S. with their parents who had work visas or students who came to the country illegally as children, wouldn't be subject to higher, out-of-state tuition rates.
"We're just holding them back and subjecting them to extreme tuition through no fault of their own," said Republican Rep. Dan Douglas, the bill's sponsor.
At least 18 states have provisions allowing for in-state tuition rates for students who entered the country illegally, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Past efforts to extend in-state tuition rates to immigrant children have failed in the Arkansas Legislature.
Huckabee championed the idea in 2005, along with making the students eligible for state college scholarships. Douglas' bill only addresses in-state tuition, not scholarships. The tuition measure backed by Huckabee was approved by the House but failed by two votes in the Senate. The legislation earned Huckabee criticism during his first unsuccessful bid for the presidency in 2008.
Douglas said he proposed the bill after meeting with a group of immigrants in his district from India who were in Arkansas on temporary work visas but faced yearslong waits for a green card, so their children were ineligible for in-state rates. He said the change would also affect the Marshallese population concentrated in northwest Arkansas.
Advocates say the change could benefit thousands in the state in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which was implemented during former President Barack Obama's administration. The program allows young immigrants living in the country illegally who were brought here as children to remain in the U.S.
"We have individuals who are having to pick between going to college and paying for emergency health care for their families," said Mireya Reith, founding executive director of Arkansas United, an immigrant advocacy group. "Nobody should ever have to make that decision."
The bill easily cleared the House last week, but faced pushback from critics who said extending the cheaper tuition rate was rewarding illegal immigration.
"I understand it's not their kids' fault, but what are we saying to the folks who wait, who follow the rules?" Republican Rep. Gayla McKenzie said during debate on the House floor last week.
The top official at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville said the school supports legislation enabling students who have graduated from high schools in the state or have lived in the state for a certain period to pay in-state tuition.
"That includes students who were brought to this country as children_through no fault of their own_and who have grown up in our state, attended our public schools and befriended our children, and have made contributions to our campuses, our economy and to our communities," Chancellor Joseph Steinmetz said in a statement. "Their attendance doesn't take anything away from any other student - in fact, their presence enriches our community."
Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson told reporters he generally supports extending in-state tuition rates to DACA students, saying they have a legal presence in the country. But he said he wanted to look at Douglas' bill to make sure it's not extending that rate to people in the country illegally. Douglas said he's working on an amendment to address the governor's concerns.
The tuition bill is one of three benefiting DACA students the majority-Republican Legislature is considering. Another House-backed bill pending before a Senate committee enables students in the DACA program to get nursing licenses. That measure is sponsored by Democratic Rep. Megan Godfrey, a co-sponsor of the in-state tuition measure. Godfrey has filed a similar measure concerning teacher licenses for DACA recipients.