In 2001, Gov. Rick Perry proudly signed legislation into law allowing illegal immigrants to attend Texas colleges and universities at in-state tuition rates.
The law lets undocumented students who have graduated from a Texas high school and lived in Texas for at least three years qualify — if they sign an affidavit saying they intend to apply for permanent residency as soon as they're able to do so. As of 2008, 22,697 non-U.S. citizens and permanent residents had attended Texas colleges or universities at in-state tuition rates. More than 10,000 were enrolled in fall 2008 — the latest count available.
Tuition varies among Texas public colleges and universities, which make their own tuition policies and set their own rates on top of the base tuition set by statute: $50 per semester credit hour at four-year universities for Texas residents and $327 for non-residents.
Perry, responding to a reporter's question, recently said that the Texas Education Agency verifies that undocumented students are making good on their sworn promise to apply for permanent residency.
We wondered if that was so.
During the second GOP gubernatorial debate Jan. 29, Len Cannon, KHOU-TV Houston news anchor, asked Perry: "You pointed out that for illegal immigrants to get the in-state tuition they have to apply for legal residency, correct?"
Perry: "Yes, sir."
Cannon: "According to the bill it says you have to promise to apply. Does the state then follow up to verify that the application has been made for residency?"
Perry: "It is my understanding, yes, sir, absolutely."
Cannon: "And what agency?"
Twice, Cannon repeated the question, with the same result. He tried again one more time.
Cannon: "TEA does that?"
Perry: "Yes, sir. Texas Education Agency."
Clearly, Perry believes the TEA follows up on public college students who enroll as illegal immigrants. But is it true?
Not according to Suzanne Marchman, TEA spokeswoman, who said the agency oversees primary and secondary public education.
"The law (at issue) applies to colleges and universities," she said of House Bill 1403, the measure Perry signed in June 2001 permitting undocumented students to pay in-state tuition at higher education institutions. "Our agency doesn't oversee any of that."
Catherine Frazier, deputy press secretary at the Perry campaign, immediately conceded the governor's misstatement. Frazier said: "Each university is supposed to follow up on whether undocumented immigrants are pursuing citizenship and report to the (Texas) Higher Education Coordinating Board."
That so? Not exactly, at least not at the University of Texas at Austin: "There's no requirement in the law that we follow up on that," said Deana Williams, UT's assistant director of admissions.
Williams, a UT admissions official since before the 2001 law took effect, said the coordinating board, which oversees colleges and universities statewide, has told the schools to collect undocumented students' affidavits and check their transcripts to confirm that they've lived in Texas for at least the three years required to be eligible for in-state tuition. Williams said UT keeps the affidavits on record indefinitely but it's "never required to report or check" whether those students are actively pursuing permanent residency .
Andy Kesling, the coordinating board's director of communications, said the board doesn't follow up with benefiting students at all. Indeed, there's nothing in the statute requiring it to.
Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, carried the legislation in the Senate that had been authored in the House by then-Rep. Rick Noriega. Van de Putte told us: "There's nobody checking, but they technically could — there's nothing prohibiting them from checking and there's nothing that mandates them to check."
And while undocumented students can apply for permanent residency, current immigration laws generally preclude them from obtaining a green card without an employer's sponsorship. The DREAM Act, proposed federal legislation that has several times failed to pass Congress, would allow undocumented students to obtain permanent residency after two years of college or military service.
"It's almost like a Catch-22," Van de Putte said. "There's so many hoops and barriers. Getting the education is just one part."
For the moment, it appears that no state agency checks up on whether students benefiting from HB 1403 pursue permanent residency. We rate both Perry's claim — and his campaign aide's attempted correction — False.