The Patrick administration's decision to extend in-state tuition rates to illegal immigrants who qualify for a work permit carves a new path through the thicket of state policies on the issue, immigration specialists said Tuesday, and could spur other states to follow suit.
Massachusetts' policy shift, which has drawn a backlash from critics since it was announced Monday, marks the first time a state has allowed immigrants who qualify under relaxed federal immigration guidelines to pay the lower resident rate, specialists said.
While laws on residency and in-state tuition vary widely among states, the move in Massachusetts marked a clear response to the Obama administration's immigration policy, and advocates said it sets the stage for other states to consider similar measures.
"It sends a message that if the federal government is going to allow immigrants to remain in the country, even temporarily, states should try to help them become full members of society," said Ben Winograd , staff attorney for the American Immigration Council, an immigrants' rights group.
In the same vein, California this year allowed illegal immigrants who become eligible to remain in the country to obtain driver's licenses, Winograd said.
Under the federal program announced in June, illegal immigrants who came to the United States before age 16, are younger than 31,and have lived here for the past five years can receive a two-year reprieve from deportation and a renewable work permit. More than 300,000 people have applied for consideration so far, and more than 50,000 have been approved, according to the latest government figures.
Up to 1.7 million immigrants could qualify for the program, a Pew Research Center survey found. Some 85 percent are Hispanic. There are an estimated 11.2 million illegal immigrants in the United States.
The program does not create a path to permanent resident status or citizenship.
Patrick's announcement cited existing state regulation. law. In Massachusetts, immigrants with federal work permits have been allowed to pay in-state tuition since 2008. While the policy applies to immigrants who are in the country illegally, they must obtain government permission before they are eligible to pay the lower tuition rate at public colleges and universities.
"At that point, they will be here lawfully," said Heather Johnson, a spokeswoman for the state's education office. "If you have a work permit, it confers lawful residency in Massachusetts."
But other states do not have such laws on the books, making the situation less clear-cut. Despite the federal policy, the tuition debate will play out on a state-by-state basis, immigration specialists said.
"They are really all over the map," said Tanya Broder, senior attorney for the National Immigration Law Center. "What happens is going to depend on a variety of factors."
Broder said the shift in federal policy, as well as the Massachusetts decision, signals that qualified immigrants should be able to pay the same college tuition rate as citizens.
"I don't think there's a legal barrier here," she said. "Federal law absolutely allows these students to obtain in-state tuition."
Roy Beck, president of NumbersUSA, a group that seeks to reduce immigration, said the benefit will reward and encourage illegal immigration.
"We oppose any benefits that reward illegal immigration that entice more people to come in illegally," Beck said. "Certainly, if people are thinking of moving here illegally, Massachusetts looks like a good place to come."
More than a dozen states allow illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition if they meet certain requirements, including California, Connecticut, New York, Rhode Island, and Texas.
This month, Maryland became the first state to approve in-state tuition by popular vote, passing a ballot measure with 59 percent of the tally.
California, New Mexico, and Texas allow undocumented students to receive state financial aid, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Four states — Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, and Indiana — explicitly ban undocumented students from receiving in-state tuition, the organization said.
Some states say the financial impact of allowing in-state tuition has been modest. At the University of Connecticut, for instance, just 30 undocumented students have enrolled, a university official said.
In Massachusetts, officials estimate that upward of 15,000 people will be eligible to apply for the federal deferral. Proponents say that teenagers who come to the country as young children and consider themselves Americans deserve a chance to pay the lower rate.
For now, many are priced out.
"They aren't in school paying out-of-state rates," said Broder, of the National Immigration Law Center. "They are out of school."
Some studies have shown that providing students in-state tuition rates improves motivation and reduces dropouts.
Suman Raghunathan, director of policy for the Progressive States Network, said support has been growing for policies that allow in-state tuition, particularly since Congress voted down immigration reform two years ago.
"We've seen a growing wave of interest," she said. "It's been a groundswell."