Update on Instate Tuition and Driver’s Cards

When Governor Doyle signed the State budget for 2009-2010 on June 29, Wisconsin became the 11th state in the nation to provide in-state tuition rates for undocumented students, joining California, Kansas, Illinois, Minnesota, Texas, Utah, Oklahoma, New York, Washington and New Mexico.

The new policy means that students who have lived in the State of Wisconsin for at least three years prior to graduating from high school or obtaining their General Equivalency Diploma (GED) will be eligible for in-state tuition rates.

This represents important national progress in the civil rights of immigrants in education. Since 1996 undocumented students who apply to the public university system are considered “foreign students” and must pay out of state tuition rates, regardless of how long they have lived in the United States. So, despite the fact that an undocumented student had grown up most of his or her life in Wisconsin, met the teacher’s expectations, and the family had contributed in taxes to public education; for all practical purposes, higher education was out of reach because of the high cost.

Opponents of in-state tuition like to argue that the state is losing money when we grant in-state tuition rates to undocumented students, because in their imaginary world, these students are currently attending universities and paying out-of-state tuition rates. But faced with paying out of state rates, many students are not able to attend college at all.

This new law represents an important step forward because it treats undocumented students in Wisconsin as a class or group, recognizes the value of their contributions, and codifies this new policy as state law in the university system. It also builds on previous progress, such as the UW Board of Regents resolution passed in 2004, introduced by Jesus Salas, that affirmed the option of tuition remission for undocumented students as individuals at the UW system; and of course building on the educational opportunities available through the Wisconsin technical college system which functions under different admissions criteria. Yet for too long, despite these opportunities, access to higher education has functioned, as Rachel Buff, an immigration historian has described, as an “undergraduate railroad” at our public universities, similar to the underground railroad by which abolitionists helped African slaves move from the south to Canada through a series of social networks.

This accomplishment would not have been possible if not for the perseverance of many people; but in particular, the students themselves, who have organized for years in rallies, press conferences, meetings with legislators and the general public to talk about their struggles and dreams. In particular, I would like to mention, Students United for Immigrant Rights and Students United in the Struggle, an African American student organization at Horlick High School that has fought shoulder to shoulder with immigrant students in their struggle for equality. Other Latino groups at the technical colleges and universities, as well as the United Student Council have supported these efforts for years. Within the State Capitol, State Representative Pedro Colon has led this effort for many years.

The battle continues: Drivers Licenses

Our victory has been bittersweet, because the Coalition for Safe Roads had been successful in introducing language to provide a driving card option, available under REAL ID, for immigrants who currently cannot access drivers’ licenses and auto insurance. It had successfully been introduced into the state budget, passed the State Assembly, but was derailed in the Senate. Senator Carpenter, a Democrat in Milwaukee, disgracefully worked to remove both in-state tuition and the driving cards from the state budget; making outrageous claims that Latinos in his district don’t support this measure.

While in-state tuition was reintroduced in the state budget; the driving cards were not. Disappointingly, the Democratic Senate leadership chose to not keep the driving card option, ignoring what is in the public interest in terms of public safety and a million dollar revenue item, at a time that the state is laying off workers.

Given the impressive level of support for the driving cards, including rural and law enforcement in the state, the Coalition for Safe Roads is currently looking to introduce the driving card option as separate legislation. In addition, Voces de la Frontera is circulating a petition from voters in Senator Carpenter’s district to state their support for driving cards. We encourage members of the community to help with this effort.

We encourage members of the community to join these efforts by joining our organization as members in our summer membership drive. The power of Voces de la Frontera comes from the community.

In 2009, we achieved one of our goals. With your help we will achieve driving cards and legalization as well.

This post is also available in: Spanish