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Mike Beebe: No Opposition to In-State Tuition for Illegal Students

3 min read

LITTLE ROCK — An Arkansas legislative panel could soon weigh in on a plan to extend cheaper in-state tuition rates to some students who came to the U.S. illegally as children.

And the measure may now have a better chance of passing.

A spokesman for Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe said he’s not opposed to the proposal, despite concerns about it violating federal law.

“He feels that the best approach to all of this is immigration reform on the federal level,” Beebe spokesman Matt DeCample said Friday. “But if the state wants to have a debate and look to pass a DREAM Act on the state level… he’s not going to try to stop that.”

That marks a change for Beebe, who issued a legal opinion as the state’s top attorney that helped kill a similar proposal in 2005. He had said the measure violated a 1996 federal law that said no higher-education benefit could be provided to illegal immigrants’ children unless it’s also available to every U.S. citizen.

“Historically, he’s had the concerns about the federal law,” DeCample said. “And while those concerns remain, you’re seeing more and more states essentially taking the risk that the feds aren’t going to be particularly interested in pursuing enforcement.”

Plus, attitudes about immigration seem to be changing all across the country.

A bipartisan group of senators in Washington is working to craft comprehensive immigration reform legislation. Lawmakers in Colorado recently approved an in-state tuition proposal akin to the one being considered in Arkansas. And this past week, Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky spoke at the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, issuing an appeal to conservatives to get involved in the immigration debate and warning that the GOP risks “permanent minority status” if it doesn’t win over more Hispanics.

The sponsor of the Arkansas proposal, Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, says the change in opinions at the national level is reflected here, too.

“It has taken some time for people to get to that point, but I think many, many, many more people are there now,” Elliott said. “That’s what gives me hope.”

Elliott’s proposal would grant in-state tuition rates to anyone who has attended an Arkansas high school for at least three years and has an Arkansas high school diploma or general education diploma in the state. Supporters say it would more fairly treat students who came to the U.S. illegally as children and attended school here, but have to pay out-of-state tuition rates that are about double the in-state rates.

Those students include 24-year-old Zessna Garcia Rios, who came to the U.S. from Mexico at the age of three and grew up in Bentonville. But since she’s not eligible for cheaper in-state tuition rates, she’s only taking one class per semester at the University of Arkansas.

“It has a lot to do with what I’m able to afford and what I can’t afford,” she said.

She and a number of other students hope that will change.

Elliott has downplayed the immigration angle of the measure this session, instead focusing on it as an education bill.

But the fact that Beebe has backed off opposing the in-state tuition bill doesn’t mean the proposal will pass.

Elliott’s proposal failed in 2005 even though she had the backing of Republican and then-Gov. Mike Huckabee. A similar measure died in 2009, when she lacked Beebe’s support.

This time around, Beebe is not endorsing the bill and DeCample wouldn’t say whether the governor would sign such a measure should it reach his desk.

But, he said, “He’s not going to be out there campaigning against it.”

(Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, rewritten, broadcast or distributed.)
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