New Legislatures Revisit In-State Tuition for Immigrants

While President Barack Obama pushes an overhaul of the country’s federal immigration laws, states are likely to decide whether undocumented immigrants should get in-state tuition.
by | January 22, 2013
People rallying in support of California's Dream Act, which qualifies undocumented immigrants for in-state tuition and was signed in 2011. (Photo: AP/Jason Redmond)

By Daniel C. Vock

Long-bottled-up bills that address state policies on whether to offer in-state tuition to undocumented students could become law this year, because of changes in party control of legislative chambers and changes in federal policy.

President Barack Obama plans to push for an overhaul of the country’s immigration laws in Washington, D.C., but states have limited powers to address the issue. The U.S. Supreme Court drew that line even tighter last summer, when it struck down key parts of Arizona’s ambitious effort to curb illegal immigration. But deciding who can get in-state tuition is clearly within the powers of states, and it has re-emerged as a flash point in state capitols.

Tuition is one of several immigration-related topics likely to crop up in state capitols this year. Lawmakers also will consider granting driving privileges to illegal immigrants, requiring employers to use a federal database to verify the legal status of new hires and changing rules for police who arrest undocumented immigrants.

On tuition, Maryland voters in November upheld in-state tuition rates for undocumented immigrants who grew up in Maryland. At least 12 states offer in-state tuition to illegal immigrants. In other states, the fate of in-state tuition bills is closely tied to the partisan makeup of their legislatures.


A bill to lower tuition rates for illegal immigrants stalled last year in the Republican-controlled House, but advocates hope the Democratic takeover of the chamber will clear the way for passage this year. Adding to the urgency is a dispute brewing over a decision by Metro State University of Denver to offer its courses at cost to undocumented students. The attorney general issued a non-binding opinion saying the policy violates state law, which prohibits public benefits for illegal immigrants, but Metro State rolled out the policy anyway. It registered 96 illegal immigrants as students last semester. This year’s legislation could be heard by a Senate committee as early as this week.


A legislative shake-up could lead to the reversal of Kansas’ 2004 law granting tuition to undocumented students. Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a Republican who helped write dozens of bills around the country to crack down on illegal immigration, is pushing for repeal in this year’s session. Similar efforts have passed the House in recent years but then stalled in the Senate. But the Senate will be more conservative this year, after conservative Republicans ousted in last year’s elections the moderate Republicans who ran the chamber.


President Barack Obama last summer granted thousands of young immigrants a temporary reprieve from the threat of deportation. In November, Governor Deval Patrick announced that those students would also qualify for in-state tuition at Massachusetts’ public universities. Patrick says he does not need legislative approval for the move, because people who have work permits are eligible for in-state tuition under existing law. “This isn’t about a change in policy and more to the point, it’s about the right thing to do,” he told reporters. But the move upset some lawmakers on Beacon Hill who said Patrick usurped the power of the legislature.


Immigrants hope that a political shift in power in the Oregon House will clear the way for in-state tuition for undocumented students two years after a similar measure stalled there. At the time, the Oregon House was evenly split between Democrats and Republicans. Now, Democrats control the Legislature and the governor’s office. Governor John Kitzhaber supports the idea. The Oregon Legislature reconvenes in February.

Stateline  |  Nonpartisan, Nonprofit News Service of the Pew Charitable Trusts  |

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