While the U.S. economy continues to sink into oblivion, a seemingly unrelated debate has been raging among political pundits and laymen alike. Texas Gov. Rick Perry has been under intense scrutiny in recent weeks for his continued public support of the so-called “Texas Dream Act.” Hard as it is to imagine, support for the act was common among even the staunchest Republicans 10 years ago. So why is Perry’s position being lambasted now?
Apparently, a lot can happen in 10 years. In 2001, the Republican-controlled Texas Legislature, under Perry’s governorship, passed HB 1403, a bill that grants certain undocumented students in-state tuition waivers. Republican supporters of HB 1403 have since flip-flopped on the issue, going to extreme lengths to prove their tough immigration stances to their constituencies. In a notable example, state Rep. Leo Berman, R-Tyler, introduced legislation recently that would mandate that English be the official state language and would eliminate birthright citizenship. Berman proposed this legislation despite voting for the Texas Dream Act in 2001. Though both measures failed, the contrast in his positions is startling and indicative of the new mentality regarding immigration.
There’s at least one politician in the mix who hasn’t changed his mind. These days, Perry’s characteristic “stick-to-your-guns” endorsement of HB 1403 is leaving his Tea Party base both horrified and disillusioned.
Recently, Perry told other GOP contenders at a debate that they didn’t “have a heart” if they disagreed with in-state tuition policies for undocumented immigrants. Though he has since apologized for his word choice, the statement has drawn scorn from prominent politicians. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie directly targeted Perry by calling his own stance “not a heartless position” but a “common sense position”. This theme is a common refrain among detractors but is guided more by overworked rhetoric than substantial economic policy.
Critics of Texas’ HB 1403 often call into question the use of taxpayer funds to grant lower tuition rates to those who don’t “pay into the system.” While it is true that undocumented students do not pay taxes, this shortsighted view completely overlooks the potential tax revenue that could be created by an expanded, educated and diversified workforce.
The U.S. Department of Education estimates that college graduates make anywhere from $15,000 to $18,000 more a year than high school graduates. That extra income increases the socioeconomic status of undocumented immigrants while simultaneously expanding consumer spending and home ownership. Both situations increase revenue in property and sales taxes for the state of Texas. Likewise, an educated workforce often attracts high-wage industries, further bolstering the state’s economy.
“Like it or not, these students make up a large percentage of our workforce,” Bill Hammond, president of the Texas Association of Business, told the Houston Chronicle. “It is a good investment of taxpayer money to have an educated workforce.” While the cost of granting in-state tuition for these students might seem wasteful, in the long-run Texas will make more money from the economic resonance of an educated population than it will lose in tuition waivers.
In any case, the state is already investing millions in educating illegal immigrants through grade school. By continuing to educate these students through college, Texas will eventually draw benefits on their investment through a more successful and productive workforce. At the same time, by continuing to stigmatize undocumented students that are working to educate themselves, we risk alienating a segment of the population that has much to offer our economy and society.
It is also important to distinguish Texas’ bill from the federal DREAM Act — ours provides no citizenship clause. Texas’ HB 1403 is limited to college tuition breaks, and even then, it is limited in several ways. Texas’ bill specifies that the student must have lived in Texas for three years prior to attending college, have graduated high school and have filed a formal intention to apply for permanent resident status. While the heated rhetoric suggests otherwise, HB 1403 simply provides ambitious immigrants a path towards accessible education.
Though Perry’s stance on immigration is far from perfect, in this instance he is being unfairly criticized. Rhetoric aside, providing accessible higher education for undocumented immigrants is essential to the success of Texas’s economy. The Texas Dream Act is, and always has been, an education incentive. The massive influx of young illegal immigrants provides an extraordinary opportunity for Texas, for the state can either educate them and let them be productive or ignore the problem and cripple the economy. Perry himself put it best: “It doesn’t make any difference what the sound of your last name is. That’s the American way.”
Katsounas is a business and government sophomore.