By Jennifer Calfas, Daily Staff Reporter
Published January 31, 2013
As the release of the Coalition for Tuition Equality’s report on tuition equality for undocumented Michigan residents to the University’s Board of Regents approaches, the drafters will have to contend with a number of serious legal and political issues that prevent the University from immediately implementing the policy.
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In an interview with The Michigan Daily on Wednesday, University President Mary Sue Coleman said recently proposed federal immigration reform should help to develop a solution. If the federal government provides a new legal framework for dealing with the issues, Coleman said it would help the University develop a solution.
“I am very encouraged with the discussion that is going on at the federal level because I don’t think this should be solved piecemeal,” Coleman said. “We should need a comprehensive solution. I care deeply about the students who come here from other countries and get an advanced degree and have to go back. This is crazy what’s going on in this country.”
The primary obstacle to providing in-state tuition to undocumented students is the Illegal Immigration and Immigration Responsibility Act of 1996, which prohibits states from giving any benefits to undocumented residents, including welfare, financial aid and driver’s licenses. However, states must provide elementary and high school education and emergency health care. In addition, they can issue certain benefits by enacting specific state laws.
Although there is no Michigan law allowing in-state tuition for undocumented students, the public universities in the state function as constitutionally autonomous entities, an independence universities enjoy in only a small number of states. The regents can determine tuition rates and who is eligible for in-state tuition, among other provisions.
Because of its autonomy, the regents could even make the argument that it does not need the authority of the state of Michigan to circumvent some of the barriers imposed by the laws. However, such unilateral action would likely face public resistance and draw the University into injunctive lawsuits to reverse the policy.
In an interview last Friday, University Provost Phil Hanlon said the difficulty in solving the issue is caused more by policy barriers than financial issues.
“Certainly the legal issues are really the ones that are most complicated and difficult to work out,” Hanlon said.
California is among 12 states that have enacted state provisions that allow institutions of higher education to give benefits to undocumented individuals. Enacted in 2001, the California DREAM act allows public institutions to grant in-state tuition to undocumented students who have graduated from an in-state high school and arrived to the United States as minors.
Members of Congress have proposed similar legislation at the federal level to no avail.
During the regents’ recent trip to California, Robert Birgeneau, chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, discussed with them the circumstances that allow Berkeley to provide in-state tuition and Cal Grants — which provide up to $12,000 in aid — to undocumented students.
Coleman said Michigan faces different challenges than California to support undocumented students.
“I would love to have the same circumstances here, but we don’t,” Coleman said. “At the same time, I want the issue of undocumented students to be solved.”
When California enacted its version of the DREAM Act in 2001, the UC system was specifically granted immunity from civil suits seeking damages by the state legislature. Despite the protection, the UC system was sued for injunctive relief — which would have reversed the policy without awarding compensation — but later won its case before the California Supreme Court.
The precedent set by the California court has no standing on the federal level or in other states.
While Michigan does not have a similar policy in place, Coleman said she advocates for state provisions that would ease the University’s path towards a resolution of the tuition equality issue.
“It would be so helpful if we could change things at the state level and do it as a comprehensive plan because I feel it’s just an issue this country has stuck its head in the sand about forever,” Coleman said. “And it's not right.”
Hanlon said that while administrators are interested in the issue of tuition equality, it is important to note that the UC system is empowered by the state of California to grant a generous level of financial aid.
Still, the University’s Coalition for Tuition Equality hopes to make the University a leader in implementing tuition equality in the state, according to LSA junior John D’Adamo, a spokesperson for CTE.
D’Adamo noted that the University’s Mission Statement includes a commitment to diversity. He believes the University should resolve the issue of tuition equality to adhere to that and other values.
“There is a clear block to diversity, and it is something that we believe, as an organization, is wrong,” he said. “It’s a civil rights issue. We believe that these students who have fought, bled, cried and lived for the majority of their lives in Michigan deserve a fighting chance.”
D’Adamo said that CTE is also working with representatives in the state legislature on the issue, but declined to disclose who the group has worked with or the details of their discussions.
A task force that includes University attorney Donica Varner, Senior Vice Provost Lester Monts, International Center Director John Greisberger, LSA senior Luz Meza, LSA senior Yonah Lieberman and Public Policy senior Kevin Mersol-Barg — who is a Daily columnist — is developing a report on tuition equality to present to the Board, possibly in February, D’Adamo said.
D’Adamo said he hopes that although the report will weigh the pros and cons of tuition equality, he hopes it will provoke a quick discussion among administrators in support of the cause.
“We have done what we need to do, and now it’s in the hands of the administration and President Coleman to make sure tuition equality happens,” D’Adamo said. “They have the power.”
CTE has also met with some members of the Board of Regents. D’Adamo said he hopes that new Democratic Regents Mark Bernstein and Shauna Diggs will support the issue, which was highlighted in Bernstein's campaign last year.
D’Adamo said CTE may present the report at the Feb. 21 Board of Regents meeting, and remains optimistic about having a timely response from the Board.
—Daily Staff Reporter Sam Gringlas and Daily News Editor Peter Shahin contributed to this report
Follow Jen Calfas on Twitter at @JenCalfas.
Correction appended: A previous version of this article did not include International Center Director John Greisberger as a member of the tuition equality report task force.