Op-Ed: Immigration Reform Is the Smart Way to Go

As published in the Newark Star-Ledger on April 14, 2013

By Robert L. Barchi, President of Rutgers University

All indications are that Congress is poised to embrace comprehensive immigration reform and send a bipartisan package to the president within the coming months.

That’s good news on several fronts. Our immigration system is one that was largely designed in the 1960s; it needs updating to reflect the 21st century world in which we live.

The current system results in our colleges and universities educating and training some of the smartest people in the world, only to see those students forced to leave the United States and apply their knowledge in other countries. The current system has also brought us to the point where we have a shadow economy, fueled by an undocumented labor force that is not fully contributing to the American economy, not fully paying local, state and federal taxes, and certainly not likely to add to our collective prosperity.

Clearly, bipartisan agreement between Congress and the president, on anything, will be a welcome relief for those of us who live outside the Washington bubble. It is encouraging that the Senate’s "Gang of Eight," four Democratic and four Republican senators, appear to be in the final stages of forging immigration reform legislation. It is exciting to see that their counterparts in the House of Representatives are close to announcing a similar framework for agreement.

The reform package is expected to include the DREAM Act, which focuses primarily on the children of undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country as young children and have been raised in our communities and educated in our schools. These are our neighborhood kids.

The DREAM Act would have a profoundly positive impact on higher education, on our economy and on our future prosperity. That’s why college presidents have been joined by a growing bipartisan chorus of Americans calling for its enactment.

Chief among the components of the DREAM Act is a proposal to allow undocumented students to have access to in-state tuition rates at public colleges and universities and to federal work-study opportunities and federal student loans.

The ethical, civil and humanitarian aspects of those changes are obvious; the economic aspects are compelling as well.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1982 (Plyler vs. Doe) that American public schools must provide undocumented students with K-12 education. Taxpayers pay significantly to provide that education; in New Jersey, taxpayers spend more of their tax dollars on K-12 public education than the taxpayers of any other state. In some districts, funding can total more than $250,000 per student for taxpayer-supported public education through 12th grade.

But, because of existing federal law, these same students cannot receive in-state tuition rates or access to student loans or work-study programs; a college education is simply out of reach. That means those students get stifled. That means the taxpayers’ investment of a quarter-million dollars, or more, can never be maximized and fully realized. That means our federal laws assure that our society and our economy will never reap the benefits of the major investment in the education of these students.

Some states have tried to work around the federal restrictions, but in trying to cure one problem they often create others. Legislation has been proposed in New Jersey that would redefine the qualifications for in-state tuition rates by establishing that any person who spent three years at a private, public or parochial New Jersey high school and graduated or earned a GED in New Jersey would, for all time, qualify for in-state tuition rates. I would support that legislation if changes were made to minimize the unintended consequences that would result from that approach.

Even if the changes were made to New Jersey statutes, it is important to keep in mind that undocumented students still would not have access to federal loans and other assistance. For the bulk of those newly qualified students, higher education would still be beyond reach.

The best approach would be to embrace and enact the proposed federal reforms, including the DREAM Act, and not be forced into clumsy state-by-state solutions.

The political stars are aligned for comprehensive federal reform that allows our immigrant population to live and work in the country where they were raised and educated. This would be an enormous benefit to all of us. We can only hope that the rank-and-file in the House and Senate seize upon the opportunity that their colleagues will soon put before them.