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Coleman: Laws hinder University tuition equality

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.

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.