Globe Editorial

In-state rates for all Mass. kids, even if they lack legal status

July 31, 2011

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CHILDREN WHO were brought to the United States illegally are hardly responsible for their status, and Governor Patrick is right to press for a bill allowing them to pay the in-state rate at public universities. These young people are not an immediate target of federal immigration officials. Therefore, they are almost certain to stay here, and should be given the opportunity to pursue higher education. All of Massachusetts would benefit from the higher taxes they would pay as educated workers.

By all rights, these kids should be offered legal status. In every meaningful sense they are Americans. But the federal government has failed repeatedly to enact a comprehensive immgration-reform bill. The stormy political winds swirling around the immigration issue have also served to block the DREAM Act, which would provide a path to citizenship for illegal immigrant children who go to college or the military.

Michael Widmer, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, rejects the idea that offering the lower in-state tuition rate to these young people would cost Massachusetts money. He projects a boost to state revenues if students who are now priced out of college earn a chance to enroll at the resident rate, which is generally about half that of the nonresident rate. Illegal immigrants, notes Widmer, are not eligible for state financial aid.

Moreover, while an estimated 14,000 children under age 18 in Massachusetts are undocumented, the simple fact is that the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency is not trying to track them down and deport them. ICE has its hands full trying to round up illegal immigrants who commit violent crimes. In a June memorandum, the agency instructed its agents to use “prosecutorial discretion’’ consistent with ICE’s enforcement priorities. Illegal immigrants who came here as young children and high school graduates who are pursuing higher education are not high-priority candidates for “detention space’’ and “removal assets,’’ according to the memo.

Meanwhile, the DREAM Act is likely to pass once other immigration measures are sorted out, so the great likelihood is that they will end up American citizens anyway. So they may as well go to state college with their high school classmates, graduate, get jobs, and pay taxes. The Internal Revenue Service, after all, is only too happy to issue them a taxpayer identification number.

All these inconsistencies drive some opponents of illegal immigration to distraction. But America is paying the price for failing to deal realistically and intelligently with the issue of illegal immigration, thereby creating a shadow community of well over 10 million people. Taking an enforcement-only approach may sound good politically, but the country has limited resources to spend on enforcement and deportations. And if anybody deserves a break, it’s children who were brought here at a young age and grew up thinking they were proper Americans.