The California Supreme Court ruling yesterday upholding a law allowing some unauthorized immigrants to pay in-state tuition at California's public universities represents just a small step toward integrating them into the mainstream of American society.
One reason is that even though the law will make it easier for young people who are not authorized to be in the United States to attend college, it does not provide a path to citizenship – something only the federal government can do.
And with a divided Congress and a House of Representatives controlled by Republicans, the likelihood of Congress approving comprehensive immigration reform and providing a pathway to legalization is, at best, remote.
"From an integration perspective, it is a half step, not a full step," said Michael Fix, a senior vice president and director of studies at the Migration Policy Institute in Washington D.C., referring to the law AB 540, which has been under legal attack [PDF] for years. "It is hard to see how a college degree will translate into positive economic outcomes without legal status."
That's because without authorization to work in the U.S., young college graduates will have a hard time using their college qualifications to get a job that matches their skill level – if they can find a job at all.
To qualify for AB 540 status, students must have attended a California high school for at least three years and have graduated or intend to do so, among other requirements. They must also submit an affidavit pledging that they will apply for legal residence in the U.S.
Even though illegal immigrants make up 6.9 percent of California's population, they make up less than 1 percent of students who attend California's public schools and universities.
Exact numbers are hard to come by, in part because none of California's three public university systems ask students about their immigration status.
In an earlier news post, I wrote about how some 553,000 California residents are potential beneficiaries of the federal DREAM Act, which has similar requirements to the California law, but has yet to be approved by Congress.
Of those, UC estimates that only 566 could be undocumented. The other students are U.S. citizens, or are legally in the United States, but for a range of reasons were unable to establish residency in California.
At CSU last spring, only 3,600 out of 433,000 students qualified to pay in-state fees under AB 540, a CSU spokesman told me. And at California's community colleges, some 34,000 non-resident students qualified for in-state tuition, out of nearly 2.8 million enrolled as part- or full-time students. As in the case of UC, only some of these students are undocumented.
Finally, even though now California allows at least some undocumented immigrant youth both to attend public schools (free) and public universities (at in-state tuition rates), it still falls short in terms of policies and programs that experts say is needed to integrate them fully into the mainstream of society.
A report by the Migration Policy Institute [PDF] on the Los Angeles Unified School District estimated that 20 percent of elementary school students and 51 percent of high school age students who are classified as English Language Learners were not born in the United States.
According to Michael Fix, the report's principal author:
While the decision (by the California Supreme Court) is undeniably important, it won't solve the larger integration-related problem of secondary schools that have historically been ill-equipped to teach immigrants and in particular English language learners. These kids go to schools with high concentrations of other ELLs, less experienced teachers and administrators, and high relative dropout rates.
And at the college level, even those students who are not authorized to be in the United States will have a much tougher time making it through college, because among other factors, they are not eligible to receive financial aid of any kind from either California or the federal government.
In addition, especially at the community college level, dropout rates among immigrant populations are exceptionally high. A CSU Sacramento report issued last month showed that a staggering 78 percent of Latino students failed to meet their educational goals within six years of entering community college. Most of them are U.S. citizens or legal immigrants. But their failure rate underscores the obvious reality that helping students enroll in college, as AB 540 tries to do, does not guarantee they will achieve their educational goals.