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States to make calls on illegal immigrants’ licenses, tuition

The US government said Tuesday that it will be up to Massachusetts and other states to decide whether to grant resident tuition and driver’s licenses to thousands of young illegal immigrants who start applying Wednesday for federal work permits and two-year reprieves from deportation.

Governor Deval Patrick’s administration said last week that it was waiting for guidance from the Department of Homeland Security to carry out President Obama’s unexpected decision in June to halt the deportations of illegal immigrants age 30 and under.

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The new policy sought to grant relief to young illegal immigrants brought to America before age 16, but a top Obama administration official said Tuesday that the federal government would not address policies that are under states’ control.

“Those are state questions,” said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity in a news conference about the application process.

State officials on Tuesday were still puzzling over the impact of the new federal program as US immigration officials prepared for a deluge of applications from an estimated 10,000 to 20,000 immigrants in Massachusetts and more than 1 million nationwide.

‘We are still analyzing the policy to determine what impact it may have on tuition.’

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Young immigrants are applying for “deferred action,” a temporary status that does not lead to citizenship, but will yield work permits and a social security number. To qualify they must pay a $465 fee, be enrolled in school or have graduated, have a clean criminal record, and meet other requirements.

With Social Security numbers, it is likely that immigrants will be able to apply for a driver’s license in Massachusetts and many other states, since that is typically the missing link to obtain permission to drive, according to advocates on both sides of the immigration debate.

But access to resident tuition at public colleges and universities remains unclear, state officials said Tuesday.

“Certain young people who are granted deferred action and also meet other requirements may be eligible for in-state tuition, but it is too early to know that at this point,” said Heather Johnson, spokeswoman for the state Executive Office of Education. “We will wait to see what documentation accompanies any deferred action decision and evaluate that in light of current state law.”

Massachusetts and most other states are expected to confront these issues in the coming months because they do not currently allow illegal immigrants to get driver’s licenses or pay resident tuition.

Federal officials said it will take several months to process the applications, so states have some time to review their policies.

In Arizona, a fierce immigration battleground where voters barred illegal immigrants from paying resident tuition in 2006, officials said they were still not sure how Obama’s new policy will affect the state.

“We are still analyzing the policy to determine what impact it may have on tuition,” said Katie Paquet, spokeswoman for the Arizona Board of Regents, which oversees the three public universities.

But Georgia’s Board of Regents and Florida’s state university system have already decided that young immigrants with deferred action are ineligible for resident tuition.

“My understanding is it doesn’t change our policy at all,” said John Millsaps, spokesman for the Georgia Board of Regents, where nonresident tuition is roughly three times the resident rate. “Deferred action does not necessarily provide the documentation that we require. The state law is fairly strict on this.”

Diane McCain, spokeswoman for the State University System of Florida, said it would require a change in federal law to clear the way for resident tuition.  “Florida follows the federal law that defines persons as qualified aliens and these students do not fit that definition,” she said.

In addition, the US Department of Education confirmed Tuesday that young immigrants with deferred action are ineligible for federal financial aid, said spokesman Justin Hamilton.

Paying resident tuition has long been a central goal of the student-led movement that triggered Obama’s new policy, and it is likely that advocates for immigrants will continue to press the issue.

“We’re going to push for it,” said Yessica Lopez, a 19-year-old student from East Boston who pays nonresident tuition at Quincy College; she came here from Colombia when she was 6. “If not, a lot of people are going to be left out. They’re not going to be able to attend college. They’re just going to be focused on working and working and working.”

Critics of Obama’s new policy said they would oppose granting resident tuition to
immigrants with deferred action. “Our position is that a person who is currently undocumented should not get a better deal on tuition than a kid from Vermont, in other words an out-of-state kid,” said Steve Kropper, cochairman of the Massachusetts Citizens for Immigration Reform.

Maria Sacchetti can be reached at msacchetti@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @mariasacchetti.

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