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Angie Drobnic Holan
By Angie Drobnic Holan December 5, 2007
SUMMARY: Mitt Romney seeks to cast himself as tougher on illegal immigration than fellow Republican Mike Huckabee and, indeed, they have opposing views. But Romney uses loaded language to overstate his case.

Romney has attacked new front-runner Huckabee on immigration repeatedly. One target has been Huckabee's support for in-state college tuition to the children of illegal immigrants.

"Giving a tuition break to the children of illegals that are here illegally when citizens are having to pay a higher rate, that makes no sense to me at all and that's something Mike Huckabee supported when he was governor of Arkansas," Romney said.

"I vetoed a measure like that in my state and that veto was upheld."

Romney uses the shorthand "tuition breaks for the children of illegals" to discuss legislation that allows illegal immigrants graduating from public schools to get in-state tuition in the state where they live. He's right when he says he successfully vetoed legislation that would have done that in Massachusetts, and that Mike Huckabee supported a similar measure in Arkansas.

But does the legislation really equal "tuition breaks for the children of illegals"? Is that an accurate way to characterize the measure?

Here's how supporters of the legislation see it:

Young children are brought to the United States with their parents, often before the children are old enough to realize they're breaking the law. They attend public schools, which cannot bar students based on immigration status. If the kids do well and graduate, they apply to college along with their classmates.

But they soon learn that applying to college as an undocumented immigrant presents a host of challenges. They're not eligible for federal loans. They can't work legally. In some cases, they can't get a driver's license. And in most states, because they aren't citizens, they're not eligible for in-state tuition rates at state schools, which tend to be significantly lower than the rates charged to out-of-state students.

"A lot of times the students don't even know they're not legal citizens. They find out when they apply to college," said Sherri Steisel, federal affairs counsel with the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The laws on in-state tuition allow illegal immigrants who came to this country as children to receive the same tuition as their classmates. Ten states have passed these laws, which typically include having students sign statements saying they want to resolve their immigration status. The states are California, Illinois, Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah and Washington. Huckabee supported a measure in Arkansas that ultimately failed.

Critics says the laws violate the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, which prohibits states from providing college education benefits to illegal immigrants unless any U.S. citizen or national is eligible for the same benefit. In response, the states have crafted their laws carefully so they focus on in-state high school attendance. So far, the laws have survived court challenges, Steisel said.

At a Republican debate in November 2007, Huckabee defended himself against Romney's attacks, saying the Arkansas legislation he supported was intended to give resident students who are not citizens the same chances their peers have to attend college.

"They didn't get something better; they had to earn it," Huckabee said.

(Huckabee also exaggerated some of the regulations for the proposed law in Arkansas; we checked those claims previously here .)

Romney is right that Huckabee supported the measure. We disagree with the way he describes the measure as "a tuition break to the children of illegals that are here illegally when citizens are having to pay a higher rate." That would have been true only for citizens who live outside the state of Arkansas. For Arkansas students who graduated from Arkansas high schools, the law would have given them all the same tuition rate.

Romney may even realize this point but chose to ignore it. When he vetoed the legislation in Massachusetts in 2004, he said, "I hate the idea of in any way making it more difficult for kids, even those who are illegal aliens, to afford college in our state. But equally, perhaps a little more than equally, I do not want to create an incentive to do something which is illegal."

That's some distance from his recent comments that the proposal "makes no sense to me at all."

We find Romney's claim that he vetoed such a bill True. But we find his shorthand of a "tuition break" for illegal immigrants glosses over a more complicated issue. We find that part of his argument Half True.

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Our Sources

Massachusetts Legislature, Chapter 149 of the Acts of 2004, Section 32 (Governor's Veto)

Boston Globe, "Romney vetoes $108.5M in budget; He signs $24.5B state spending plan," June 26, 2004

Boston Globe, "Immigrant tuition bill defeated," Jan. 12, 2006

Mitt Romney campaign, Governor Mitt Romney on the "Sean Hannity Show," Nov. 11, 2007

Los Angeles Times, "The Invisibles," April 23, 2006

New York Times, "Suit Challenges California's Tuition Rule for Illegal Immigrants," Dec. 15, 2005

Los Angeles Times, "Policies on Illegal Immigrants at Odds," Nov. 27, 2005

Interview with Sherri Steisel, federal affairs counsel with the National Conference of State Legislatures

National Conference of State Legislatures, In-State Tuition and Unauthorized Immigrant Students, July 26, 2006

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