The Wrong Approach to Illegal Immigration

By Marc Fisher
Tuesday, February 7, 2006


They're taking our jobs. They're stealing our slots in colleges. They're out there on the street corner, scrounging for work, dragging down wages, flouting our laws. Here in Virginia's capital, you can feel the accelerating drumbeat of accusations: Whatever the social ill, the cause must be those illegal aliens, don't you know?

Have no fear: Virginia's lawmakers are once again standing up for real Americans. If the federal government won't stop illegals at the border, Virginia will take on the issue. The House of Delegates has passed a bill to give state police the authority to enforce immigration laws; if the Senate and governor approve the plan, Virginia would become the third state to let police become immigration cops when they, for example, make a traffic stop.

Judging by the flurry of bills -- upwards of 40 -- aiming to restrict illegal immigrants, you'd think they were taking over every aspect of life in Virginia.

The House the other day voted 67 to 33 to pass a bill that would ban illegal immigrants from attending state colleges or universities. Another bill would simply force them to pay out-of-state tuition rates.

Del. Jeff Frederick (R-Prince William), whose mother is an immigrant from Colombia, supported the ban as a disincentive to illegal immigration. "Look, my mother obeyed the laws and worked her butt off to come here," he said. "Like millions of other people, she waited her turn and played by the rules.

"People are fed up with illegal immigration, and they're demanding we do something about it. It's the overcrowded houses, the job market with the day laborers bringing down wages, the health system with hundreds of millions being spent in Virginia hospitals on illegal aliens, and all those ESL [English as a Second Language] classes taking away resources from other kids."

But why punish students who came here as little kids and played no role in their parents' decision to enter this country illegally?

"I feel very sorry for innocent children who through no fault of their own find themselves undocumented," said Del. Frank Hargrove (R-Hanover), author of the total ban. "But not going to college is not a passport to failure. We have to set some rules. We can't educate the whole world."

As for young people who would be banned from Virginia colleges, Hargrove said: "Let them find something else to do. They can become documented, or we've got some wonderful private colleges here in Virginia -- Randolph-Macon or Washington and Lee."

But, of course, few illegal immigrants can afford -- or get into -- fancy private colleges. Throughout American history, education has been our primary tool for drawing immigrants -- legal or not -- into our traditions and up the economic ladder.

At Northern Virginia Community College, the state's largest institution of higher education, about 14,000 of the 65,000 students were not born in the United States. The largest group of foreign-born students are Asians, followed by Middle Easterners and then Latinos, said Bob Templin, the college president. Based on what students tell the school, there are at most 150 illegal immigrants enrolled at NVCC, he said.

But no, there's "no political spin to this at all," Hargrove insisted. "We're not going after immigrants. We just want to say that our public institutions are here for citizens and then for legal aliens."

That explanation makes no sense to Templin and many others on his campus. "We're talking about a disproportionate amount of attention being devoted to a very small group," Templin said. "Almost all of our immigrant students are here lawfully. And all of them pay taxes. If we force immigrant students to pay out-of-state tuition, we might as well deny them admission. It makes higher education impractical for them."

In fact, far from taking slots that would have gone to citizens, a disproportionate number of immigrant students already pay out-of-state tuition, "which literally creates more capacity for us, because we make money from those students," Templin said.

The college president -- who with his wife, Carla, has 14 children, 11 of them adopted from four continents -- is flabbergasted by the notion that barring young people from college can possibly be good for Virginia.

A couple of hours before I spoke to him, Templin had met with Fairfax and Loudoun county educators, who told him that many Latino immigrants in high school are under the impression that the state's crackdown on immigrants already bars them from continuing their education.

"The group that most needs to be encouraged to go to college is increasingly under the perception that they cannot go to college," he said. "Education for the immigrant is the gateway to the American dream. These young people did not decide to come here. They came with their parents, and they've gone to our public schools and have demonstrated their ability."

In a cafeteria at NVCC the other day, Templin ran into a group of Sudanese students conducting a fundraiser for victims of Hurricane Katrina. He asked why they were committing their energies to a domestic cause rather than one in their native land. Their response stuck with Templin: "They said, 'This is where we live. That's what we do as Americans.' "

The ban on illegal immigrants now goes to the state Senate.

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