In the spring of 2003, Saul Munoz* was a Tulsa high school senior thinking seriously about his future. Saul’s parents had moved the family to Oklahoma years earlier, leaving Mexico at a time of increasing violence and instability, and he was not a legal U.S. resident. A member of the National Honor Society, ranked in the top ten in his class, and enrolling in extra math and science classes to graduate with a Certificate of Distinction, Saul worried constantly about what would happen after graduation. He couldn’t enroll in college and even if he were allowed to enroll he knew his family would struggle with the tuition payments. His teachers, unaware of his immigration status, peppered him with questions about his plans and couldn’t understand why a student so smart and so clearly driven was not more proactive about applying for admission and scholarships. In February, a few months before graduation, Saul heard about a bill making its way through the state legislature.
In 2003, late Senator Keith Leftwich authored a bill to extend scholarships, financial aid, and resident tuition eligibility at state colleges and universities to the undocumented children of undocumented Oklahoma residents. Essentially, the law allowed for high school students without U.S. citizenship status to receive the same treatment as their classmates: resident tuition and the chance to compete for scholarships and financial aid. It was a quintessentially American gesture – any young person brought to the state as a dependent child would not be denied a chance to succeed because of circumstances that were beyond their control.
The bill passed the state legislature with the support of several prominent Republicans, including the sitting Attorney General Scott Pruitt, the sitting Secretary of State Glenn Coffee, and currently serving Senators Harry Coates and Cliff Branan. Saul Munoz started making plans. When the bill became law he enrolled at Tulsa Community College. Resident tuition payments at the community college were manageable if he worked full-time and he eventually transferred to a four-year state university. After taking time off from his studies to do religious mission work, he has re-enrolled to complete his degree and hopes to attend graduate school. Saul is not sure where he would be today without the legislature’s action in 2003 and he doesn’t like to think about it.
Not long after the bill’s passage, groups hostile to undocumented immigrants used the law as campaign fodder against both Democrats and Republicans, accusing them of using tax dollars to subsidize ‘illegal aliens.’ Elected officials responded in 2007 with a partial repeal of the law embedded in immigration bill HB 1804, blocking undocumented students from receiving scholarships and financial aid. Resident tuition waivers were left up to the Regents for Higher Education, who continue to offer them to eligible undocumented students. There were 272 undocumented students enrolled in Oklahoma higher education institutions during the 2008-2009 school-year. This represents one tenth of one percent (.11) of total enrollment; only 16 of those students received resident tuition waivers. Despite the claim that tax-payers are subsidizing ‘illegal aliens’, the amount in tuition and fees paid into the higher education system by undocumented students – $1,074,693 between 2005 and 2009 – far exceeded the amount the state waived for in-state status ($254,026).
This session there are two bills working their way through the legislative process that seek to turn the clock back entirely. SB 683, a standalone bill, and HB 1446, an omnibus immigration bill, would deny even residency status to undocumented high school residents enrolling in public colleges and universities. Students opposed to the bills visited the Capitol in March to urge lawmakers not to pass SB 683, a measure that “would cripple the growth of future highly qualified professionals in Oklahoma.” The Senate passed the bill that same day with a 32 (Y) to 13 (N) vote.
Designations like ‘undocumented’ and ‘illegal’ obscure the reality of the lives of the friends, classmates, and neighbors that they apply to – people like Saul Munoz. Working hard, earning the respect of your teachers and peers, and striving to get ahead is as American an ethic as any. If lawmakers listened to the better angels of their nature, instead of the ill-formed fears of a narrow constituency, they wouldn’t be working against Saul and the hundreds of Oklahoma students just like him.
*Name changed to protect the student’s privacy.
Update: For a final update on these bills, see Where Are They Now? Bills we kept our eye on