Undocumented students boost state’s prosperity

February 6, 2013 

In late January, a credible, bipartisan group of U.S. senators announced plans to reform our immigration laws. This welcome news coincides with President Barack Obama’s announcement to fix what’s often termed “a broken immigration system.”

Within the comprehensive immigration reform package is the DREAM Act, a measure that allows U.S.-educated undocumented students a pathway to permanent residency and citizenship. As a first step, students must complete two years of college or military service.

Unfortunately, SB 5087, introduced in the Legislature by Sen. Don Benton, R-17th District, would make higher education nearly impossible for the same group of students.

Benton seeks to undo HB 1079, a bill I sponsored in 2003 which was approved with bipartisan support. HB 1079 enables Washington-educated undocumented students to pay in-state tuition to attend our public colleges.

To qualify, 1079-students must show they have lived in Washington for three years, have graduated from a state high school and are of good moral character. Many 1079 students arrived in our state as infants and toddlers.

They consider Washington their home and the United States their country.

In recent years, I have met and talked with some of them. One has a law degree and is pursuing a doctoral degree; two have master’s degrees in social work; another is a recent graduate of the UW’s Foster School of Business; others have graduated or are making progress towards degrees in the STEM fields. Remarkably, one high-school student recently won a national architectural design competition and placed 10th internationally.

Some argued back in 2003 that enabling 1079 students to pay in-state tuition was neither sustainable nor justifiable. The argument was as flawed then as it is now. Opponents seem unwilling to acknowledge the significant economic value that the children’s parents have been for decades in our state, the best example being agriculture.

In 2011, of some 92,000 agricultural workers needed, state farm groups acknowledge 72 percent are “document challenged” (The News Tribune, October 15, 2011). Tracy Warner, longtime editorial page editor of the Wenatchee World, puts the figure at 79 percent. Wenatchee’s citizens proudly proclaim their city the “Apple Capital of the World.”

In 2011, due primarily to “document challenged” workers, Washington produced 92 percent of the nation’s red raspberries, 79 percent of hops, 59 percent of sweet cherries, 57 percent of apples, and 48 percent of pears. Nationally, Washington ranks No. 1 in production of the above crops, and they were worth $2.7 billion dollars in 2011. If you need proof, go to agr.wa.gov/AgInWA/.

These may be inconvenient facts for those who somehow see value in preventing innocent children from accessing higher education. Let’s remember, all students who reside within our borders have a constitutional right to a K-12 education.

Today, given the bipartisanship being shown in Congress, and the leadership of Obama, 1079 students could soon be on their way to citizenship. With college degrees in hand, they will be in a position to repay the substantial investment we have made in their K-12 education.

If given the opportunity, 1079 students turned citizens can help our state achieve No. 1 ranking in areas where we now have critical worker shortages, including engineering, science, health care, technology, and skilled trades.

Against this backdrop, my profound hope is that my former colleagues in the Legislature soundly reject Benton’s proposal to undo HB 1079. Then they should renew and make real their commitment to help ensure all students educated in our state can afford higher education regardless of family income.

The future health and prosperity of our state and nation rests on having more students with college degrees, not fewer.

Phyllis Gutierrez-Kenney served as State Representative, 46th Legislative District, Seattle, from 1997-2013. She served as chair of the House Higher Education Committee. She may be reached at kenneylp@aol.com.

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