When the Department of Higher Education announced after examining the Social Security numbers of every college student in Arkansas that there were very few children of unauthorized immigrants attending college, I wasn't sure how to take it.
The newspaper stories read like good news: “Whew, the Mexicans aren't goin' to college after all” was the message between the lines. Isn't the world upside down when the pro-education governor of a state that is 50th in college graduates is relieved to learn that kids are not attending college in his state?
I know, these are the children of illegal immigrants and they don't have a right to be here. And I say, so what? They're here, if history is any guide they aren't leaving, and it's in our interest to see that as many children as possible go to college.
If a child has lived here for three years and graduates from an Arkansas high school, we charge him about $11,000 (in-state tuition) a year to go to college. If he went to school and graduated from another state, we charge him about double (out-of-state tuition), on the legitimate assumption his family has not been paying taxes here and supporting the schools.
But with the children of unauthorized immigrants, we just pretend they haven't lived here for three years and we pretend they haven't just graduated from Central High School. Then we pretend their family hasn't been paying sales taxes and income taxes (which are deducted from their paycheck using that fake Social Security number) for all the years they have been here. We pretend they don't exist when they are our neighbors, our co-workers and our fellow human beings. They are the poorest among us and we make it twice as expensive for their kids to get an education. Now tell me again what Jesus would do.
Let's compromise. The rationale for out-of-state tuition is that the student's family hasn't been paying state taxes. So if a kid's family can show they have been paying state income taxes for the last three years while living here for at least three years and graduating from an Arkansas high school, we treat him like the kids he graduated with. Fair enough?
President Reagan pushed through a federal law in the late 1980s that said if a worker here without papers could prove he had paid his taxes and had not broken a criminal law, he could get on track for legal residence and ultimately citizenship. My guess is, something similar to the Reagan plan is going to be enacted in the next few years. A government that can't evacuate 60,000 people from New Orleans will be hard-pressed to deport 10 million or 12 million people to Mexico.
Let's stop pretending. Whether we like it or not, we have about 200,000 Latinos living in Arkansas, and chances are their children and grandchildren will be living here years from now. We can maximize their potential or we can throw up roadblocks and keep them uneducated and poor. The demagogues whipping up fear of Latinos and immigrants of all stripes are the same ones that spewed their lies and hatred against blacks in the 1950s. Brown is the new black when it comes to bigotry and this is the civil rights issue of our era.
The question is, which side are you on?
Alan Leveritt is publisher of the Arkansas Times.