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Why the Mock Immigration Sting at UT Takes the Thoughtful Out of "Thoughtful Discussion"

Your Facebook newsfeed may have lit up last week after the Texas Tribune reported on a controversial event at UT Austin. The event was planned by the Young Conservatives of Texas (YCT) and offered students a $25 gift card if they could “catch” any one of a group of students wearing labels marked “illegal immigrant.” According to the Tribune’s report, the group had hoped to use the event to “spark a campus-wide discussion about the issue of illegal immigration.” It was canceled the next day after the University denounced it as as inflammatory and the YCT’s chairman conceded it was “over the top.”

The controversy comes at a very interesting moment in Texas politics. Earlier this month State Senator Wendy Davis and Attorney General Greg Abbott officially announced their respective candidacies for governor. That may explain why the Tribune’s initial report made sure to note that YCT chairman Lorenzo Garcia served as a paid field representative for Abbott. Perhaps sensing a gaffe after less than two weeks into the race, Abbott’s campaign sent out an email dissociating itself from the “repugnant effort.” While the debacle itself will not loom as vividly in the minds of Texas voters in November 2014, it still presents an opportunity to explain why the mock immigration sting, and the feelings and rhetoric it aimed to inspire, would do very little to initiate a “thoughtful discussion” about immigration in Texas.

Items to Note Following the UT Incident

First, when talking about immigration it helps to remember that federal law supersedes state law under the doctrine of preemption. This means that only the U.S. Congress and executive branch have the authority to regulate national immigration laws. See Article VI, paragraph 2 of the U.S. Constitution i.e. the Supremacy Clause. But there are some cases where states can make laws restricting the access that undocumented immigrants have to certain services or benefits (e.g. drivers licenses, jobs, in-state tuition). More recently, states have also been permitted to have laws that require state officers to inquire into the immigration status of a person if they have reasonable grounds to believe that person is in the country illegally (e.g. Arizona SB 1070 and Alabama HB 56).

Texas currently does not have strict enforcement legislation, but it does guarantee in-state tuition rates at public universities to undocumented students ( see Texas HB 1403) and will possibly consider allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain driver's licenses. While there is no clear indication that the YCT event was aimed at any particular law, the in-state tuition issue still found its way into the picture because of the chairman’s affiliation with Greg Abbott, who has said that he would change the law if elected governor. It seems reasonable to assume that the in-state tuition issue was at least part of the motive for the demonstration, after all it was going to take place at the state’s second largest flagship university. But for an organization that purports to promote policies that maximize the state’s economic potential, it makes little sense to endorse a move that would cost the state generations of skilled and educated workers.

The economic justification for the in-state tuition law is twofold. First, numerous studies of immigrant educational attainment point to something called the “immigrant paradox,” a trend in which the children of immigrants outperform their peers. This trend has been cited as one of the main justifications for the DREAM Act. Second, under the Supreme Court’s decision in Plyler vs. Doe, no state can deny a free public education to students on the basis of their immigration status. The decision is limited to K-12 schooling, and essentially mandates that undocumented students have access to the State’s public school system. It follows that the State is mandated to educate a group of students who tend to have a higher achievement potential than other groups. It would make sense then for the State to preserve an environment that is hospitable and welcoming for members of that group if and when they decide to pursue a higher education. After all you’ve already expended resources developing those students in their K-12 years. Gaining a competitive edge over other states requires at least attempting to retain the talent that you’ve expended so much of your resources to develop.

But if Texas changes the law to make in-state tuition unavailable to undocumented students, then it risks losing an advantage in the competition for skilled and educated workers. This is because undocumented students in Texas, most of whom have already been educated in the State’s public school system, will no longer have an incentive to pursue a post-secondary education in the State. As is the case with any consumer decision, price will dictate choice. This is particularly true when it comes to choosing a college in Texas, where tuition for nonresidents can be far more expensive than what it is for residents (e.g. a UT-Austin undergraduate studies program costs $4,908 for in-state and $16,988 for out of state).

In the end, the YCT event reminds us that provocative actions broadly aimed at sparking a discussion usually tend to create controversies of their own, and ultimately draw attention away from the original issue. Nothing here comes close to addressing the fact that the demonstration carried a dangerous message that immigration enforcement should take the form of a citizen policing initiative in the manner of the minutemen or a neighborhood watch. Nor would the demonstration have brought any attention to the fact that the participation of many municipal and county jurisdictions in a Homeland Security program known as “Secure Communities” has inadvertently led to an unprecedented level of immigrant incarcerations in county jails at the expense of Texas taxpayers.

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