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As a result of a decision last year by the Rhode Island Board of Governors for Higher Education, students who are in the state illegally who graduate from Rhode Island high schools are eligible for the in-state tuition rate if they decide to go to a state college or university. The ruling sparked a furor among advocates of strict enforcement of immigration laws.
Two bills -- one that would reverse the board’s decision and one that would make the policy state law -- were the subject of an April 24, 2012, hearing before the House Committee on Finance.
William T. "Terry" Gorman, executive director of Rhode Islanders for Immigration Law Enforcement, argued for reversing the regents’ policy, saying the state would be subsidizing a college education for people who aren't employable because they are in the country illegally.
"Please keep in mind that these students, when they're attending high school, they're illegal aliens. When they graduate, they're illegal aliens. When they enter college, they're illegal aliens. Because of that status, they're not allowed to get a job to help pay their way through college. They're not allowed to get a driver's license to drive back and forth to college. And when we've provided them that four years of in-state tuition, they're not allowed to get a job," Gorman said. "They can't get a job at Textron, they can't get a job at CVS, they can't get a job at Gilbane, they can't get a job at Dunkin’ Donuts, and they can't get a job at Burger King because of their status. And we provided them with four years of a college education."
He again emphasized that point later in the hearing: "When these students graduate from college, they're still illegal aliens. They cannot get a job. How does that help the economy?"
One could argue that it's good to have the state's smartest students -- whether legal or illegal -- move into the Rhode Island work force.
But will those undocumented college grads really end up unemployed anyway?
We were particularly curious because three of the 12 states that have passed laws to provide in-state tuition for undocumented high school graduates -- California, New Mexico and Texas -- are places where the illegal immigration issue is particularly prominent, thanks to their borders with Mexico.
Are those states doing something different, allowing companies to tap the best-educated, motivated undocumented residents?
The answer is no, said Laura Vazquez, a legislative analyst for the National Council of La Raza, a Washington, D.C.-based Latino civil rights and advocacy organization. She said the situation is the same throughout the United States. "When they graduate, we don't get the benefit of having this educated group of people who are eager and ready to contribute fully."
They do find work. "Some of them are working under the table" under poor conditions. Some work for family. A number of students go to law school or enroll in Ph.D. programs, she said. But companies can't hire them because the government requires that all workers be checked for employment eligibility.
Graduates could seek employment overseas, but "a lot of these kids feel American through and through and want to practice their skills here," Vazquez said. And if they were to leave the country to take an overseas job they won't be allowed back in for a long time. Immigration law says, in general, if you've been in the United States illegally for more than one year after reaching age 18, once you leave the country you are banned from reentering for 10 years.
In a few cases, undocumented people who have been scheduled for deportation have gotten a waiver from the Department of Homeland Security, which allows them to seek a work permit. But the DHS "is very stingy with it," she said.
Other immigration experts told us the same thing: Gorman is essentially correct.
"It is true that undocumented college graduates are legally barred from working. The only exception is in rare cases they have been able to obtain contract work provided there is no employer/employee relationship," said Kent Wong, director of the Center for Labor Research and Education at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Gorman sent us a link to a Huffington Post story about Iliana Guadalupe Perez, a mathematician and undocumented immigrant, who has written a free online guide detailing how undocumented college graduates can find work. Her advice was also to seek work as an independent contractor where proof of citizenship isn't required.
When we asked Gorman what was going on in the border states, he suggested that graduates may be able to get jobs because enforcement was lax. He said a source in San Diego reported that immigration officials "are not checking on hardly anything regarding illegal aliens here right now, least of all the status of recent college grads applying for jobs. She said the governor just authorized state scholarships for the illegal alien students.
"I also spoke with Jim Gilchrist from the Minuteman Project and he echoed basically the same sentiments. He did say there has been more employer audits by ICE [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement] but not of the type that would be looking for illegal alien college grads," Gorman said in an e-mail. (The Minuteman Project pushes for stronger enforcement of immigration laws.)
"I also spoke with the Policy Director of The Center for Immigration Studies and she said she has never heard of any enforcement efforts in Texas or California regarding illegal alien college grads," said Gorman. The center is a research group that opposes illegal immigration and wants less legal immigration into the United States.
However, given the strictness of the law, a special effort to focus on college graduates may not be necessary.
Michael Olivas, director of the Institute of Higher Education Law & Governance at the University of Houston, said the why-give-them-a-tuition-break-when-they-can't-get-a-job argument is a diversion from the real problem: children brought to the United States, sometimes at a very young age, "are left in this netherworld where they can neither work nor be licensed" once they become adults.
And when their inability to find work is used to try to prevent them from being eligible for the same in-state educational opportunities as their peers, "it’s the worst kind of misdirection. It's hiding the larger issue," said Olivas, a proponent of the federal DREAM Act, which would give such students a path to citizenship.
Terry Gorman, during testimony on the question of whether to let Rhode Island's undocumented high school graduates take advantage of in-state tuition rates, said, "When these students graduate from college, they're still illegal aliens. They cannot get a job."
The experts we spoke with said he's generally correct, although they can, in a few cases, be hired as independent contractors.
Over all, we rate the claim as True.
(Get updates from PolitiFactRI on Twitter. To comment or offer your ruling, visit us on our PolitiFact Rhode Island Facebook page.)
RILIN.state.RI.US, "H7266: An Act Relating to Education - Board of Governors for Higher Education," accessed April 24, 2012
RILIN.state.RI.US, "H7340: An Act Relating to Education - Tuition Equity," accessed April 24, 2012
Interview and e-mails: Terry Gorman, executive director, Rhode Islanders for Immigration Law Enforcement, April 24, 27 and 28, 2012
Interview, Laura Vazquez, legislative analyst, National Council of La Raza, May 2, 2012
E-mail, Kent Wong, director Center for Labor Research and Education at the University of California, Los Angeles, May 3, 2012
HuffingtonPost.com, "Iliana Guadalupe Perez Published A How-To Guild For Undocumented Students Looking For Work After College," April 12, 2012, accessed April 30, 2012
E4FC.org, "Life After College: A Guide for Undocumented Students," undated, accessed April 30, 2012
Interview and e-mails, Michael Olivas, director of the Institute of Higher Education Law & Governance at the University of Houston, May 2, 2012
Chronicle.com, "Academic Purgatory: An illegal immigrant earns a Ph.D. Now what?" June 25, 2011, accessed May 1, 2012
Law.UH.edu, "The Good, the Bad, and Undocumented College Students: 2012 State and Federal Developments," April 24, 2012, accessed May 2, 2012
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