Governor Patrick’s decision this week to allow certain illegal immigrants to qualify for in-state tuition rates at state universities is an important step toward resolving ambiguities in the federal immigration rules. The state now makes clear that young undocumented immigrants who have been granted reprieves from deportation by the federal government can utilize their newly acquired work permits as proof of state residency.
The change is more than a technical clarification. The United States has succeeded as a nation of immigrants because it has, more often than not, made assimilation and integration a part of the American experience. Giving immigrants access to an affordable education, one that will help them become successful members of society, is an important part of that story.
Patrick’s directive came in response to President Obama’s executive order in June that essentially gave pardons from deportation to young undocumented immigrants whose parents brought them to the United States. Many have known no other home. This action does not confer citizenship, but it does allow recipients (those 30 and under who are in school or the military) to be eligible for work authorization cards.
After some delay, the Patrick administration determined that these permits are sufficient proof to qualify immigrants for in-state tuition rates, which can save students up to 50 percent of the cost of classes. This change is likely to affect thousands of students, and encourage more talented young people to take advantage of the state university system.
Critics of Patrick’s decision argue that the Legislature, not the governor, should determine whether a work permit is equivalent to residency. But their criticism would be better directed at Congress, which still has not acted on immigration reform, leaving the status of many undocumented students in limbo. Indeed, if there is any proof of the need for comprehensive immigration reform, it is that while states like Massachusetts and California are choosing to extend benefits to these young immigrants, Arizona and many other states are blocking them.
This country has thrived on a policy of integration. That can be as simple, and sound, as a reduction in college tuition so that students can learn the skills necessary to prosper without being hampered by debt. The nation that evolved from the Pilgrims’ journey was built on the contributions of immigrants whose technical legal status mattered less than their commitment to the new home that afforded them the chance to succeed.