One of the most dismaying moments of last week's GOP presidential debates was how Rick Perry handled Michele Bachmann's broadside against him for allowing college-bound children of unauthorized aliens to pay in-state tuition rates in Texas. She insinuated that he was forcing Texas taxpayers to subsidize the college education of illegals. And he accused her of "not having a heart" which sounded more like a mea culpa than a response. But the issue of course is not Bachmann's heart but her head.
In-state tuition is not a welfare program as Bachmann made it out to be. Public universities are supported by the taxes of state residents—legal and illegal. In-state rates are simply an acknowledgement of the fact that residents have already pre-paid part of the fee when their children go to college. Asking any resident, regardless of status, to pay the full tuition would be requiring them to pay twice for the same service. Yet this is precisely what denying unauthorized aliens in-state tuition does. As the Wall Street Journal notes this morning:
Lower in-state tuition rates at public colleges and universities aren't akin to welfare for the indigent; they're not means-tested. They're a discount for residency. The same logic applies to hunting or fishing licenses.
Immigration status aside, state residents are thought to be deserving of a subsidy because they pay sales taxes, property taxes and other fees to support state institutions that non-state residents don't pay. Especially in a state like Texas that has no income tax, illegal aliens are more likely to bear a larger share of the tax burden than their counterparts in most other states.
Most children of illegal immigrants—some 73%, according to the Pew Hispanic Center—are U.S. citizens by birth. But as of 2008 there were 1.5 million children in the U.S. who are illegal. The Supreme Court has ruled that these children are entitled to a K-12 education. Lawmakers in Texas, which is home to the nation's second-largest illegal population after California, determined that tuition breaks for these residents made economic sense. So did the state's business community, which lobbied for the measure on the grounds that a better-educated population would translate into stronger economic growth.
State tax officials estimated that increased college enrollment by illegal immigrants would be budget neutral. (Emphasis added). It would bring in new students who would pay tuition, and those students who graduated would produce increased tax payments to the state. A college graduate's lifetime earnings are nearly double those of someone with only a high school diploma. The Dallas Morning News has reported that in 2009 illegal immigrants who were taking advantage of the tuition subsidy were 1% of the state's million-plus college students. The program is hardly the draw on state coffers that critics have claimed.
Perry should have reminded Bachmann that this country fought the Revolutionary War to defend the principle of "no taxation without representation." But unauthorized aliens pay taxes even though they have no representation. Denying them in-state tuition on top of this would mean effectively allowing taxpaying residents who can vote to exploit another set of taxpaying residents who can't vote.
So if Bachmann is at all interested in fairness and upholding bedrock American principles, here are her choices: She can either offer citizenship to unauthorized aliens so they can represent themselves and pay in-state tuition. Or she can stop collecting taxes from them. Perry should have said to her that he would revoke in-state tuition for illegals provided she made this her campaign slogan: "taxing illegals should be illegal."
My previous column on how illegals pay more in taxes than you think here.