In 2004, the Legislature passed a bill to give in-state tuition to immigrants without legal status, but Republican governor Mitt Romney vetoed it. Policy makers suggested it would have benefited about 400 students.
Nineteen years later, the Senate Ways and Means Committee is reviving the proposal in the state budget. Now there are an estimated 15,000 students who could benefit, according to Jonathan Paz, policy advocate for the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition.
Senate President Karen Spilka called the policy “long overdue… The children have lived here in our commonwealth, their parents contributed to our commonwealth, and they want nothing more than to provide a solid education and future for themselves and their families.”
After more than 20 years of advocacy, it’s time to finally make the policy law.
The political climate this time is different. Democrats control the House, Senate, and governor’s office. Although House Speaker Ron Mariano has not taken a position on the Senate bill, Gov. Maura Healey called providing in-state tuition to immigrants without legal status “absolutely essential and a no-brainer.” The Legislature in 2022 passed a bill granting driver’s licenses to immigrants without legal status and voters upheld the law at the polls, showing a level of public support for migrant rights. The in-state tuition proposal has support from the state’s community colleges, state universities, and the University of Massachusetts, as well as the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce.
The social justice argument for giving in-state tuition to these young adults is the same one that has been used for years. Though opponents worry about rewarding illegal behavior, most of the beneficiaries would be those brought here as children, not by their own choice. For many, the United States is the only home they can remember. The Senate bill would offer in-state tuition and also eligibility for state financial aid to anyone who attended at least three years of high school in Massachusetts.
While some young people brought as children gained protection from deportation and access to in-state tuition under the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, DACA is not accepting new admissions, and an estimated 16,000 Massachusetts residents who would be eligible never obtained DACA status, according to the Migration Policy Institute.
Allowing these young people easier access to a college education would give them a chance at a better life. Currently, schools charge students without legal status the higher international or out-of-state rate, which many immigrants cannot afford to pay. At UMass Boston, a Massachusetts undergraduate faces a bill of $15,535 in tuition and fees next year, while an out-of-state student will be charged $37,211.
At Northern Essex Community College, where an international student pays $485 per credit and a Massachusetts resident pays $244, President Lane Glenn said he knows of an East African student who was told by her family when she was in high school that she lacked legal status. She wants to become a nurse, but can take only one class a semester because of the high cost.
“We are not doing ourselves favors by excluding these students from education, training, and the workforce,” Glenn said.
The policy would help people like Cristian Dubon Solis, 21, an organizer with Stories Inspiring Movements, formerly the Student Immigrant Movement, whose family came from El Salvador to the United States illegally when he was 3 years old. He did not apply for DACA until it was too late. Dubon Solis attended Boston public schools, graduating in 2020. He applied to public and private colleges and got accepted, but between the pandemic and the high cost, he decided not to go. If he gets access to in-state tuition, Dubon Solis said he would reapply to colleges, work to pay tuition, and pursue his dream of becoming an environmental scientist.
The economic argument for providing in-state tuition has never been stronger. Opponents worry about spending public money by giving benefits to immigrants without legal status; neither advocates nor senators have estimated the potential impact on state costs, particularly for letting immigrants get state-funded financial aid. But the economic benefits of offering in-state tuition may outweigh any costs. And the in-state tuition policy may not cost anything at all: Due to demographic shifts and other factors, public colleges have declining enrollment. If students attend who would otherwise not go to college, that will be a financial plus for schools.
More importantly, Massachusetts has a worker shortage. A 2022 report by the Massachusetts Institute for a New Commonwealth found that declining birth rates and outmigration would lead to a decline of 192,000 college-educated, working-age residents from 2022 through 2030. Already, Massachusetts has 110,000 more job openings than unemployed workers. Adding more college-educated Massachusetts residents to the mix can only help.
While many graduates may lack work authorization, their legal status could change, depending on federal government policies or family status. Immigrants without legal status can legally start businesses and are required to pay taxes.
There are 23 states that offer in-state tuition to immigrants without legal status who graduated from their state’s high schools, according to the National Immigration Law Center. Some are liberal-leaning like California and New York, but others vote conservative, like Kansas, Texas, and Utah. Seventeen states offer state financial aid to students without legal status.
As Glenn put it, “If we’re going to be economically competitive, we needed to do this yesterday.”
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.