A flurry of state legislation over the last decade has left the nation with a patchwork of policies toward undocumented students, which range from categorically denying access to public universities to granting in-state tuition breaks and financial aid.
In June, Alabama enacted the nation's toughest immigration policy, prohibiting undocumented students from attending public universities. Just four months later, California passed the DREAM Act, affording qualified undocumented students access to unprecedented amounts of state financial aid to attend California's public universities.
The majority of states have yet to address the issue of undocumented students in higher education; of those that have, most practice policies that lie somewhere between California's and Alabama's. Whether California's DREAM Act will ultimately lead the nation — as the state's policies have so many times in the past — remains an open question.
In this complicated national landscape, right-leaning states tend to provide less access than left-leaning states: Three blue states — Connecticut, Rhode Island and Maryland — granted in-state tuition to undocumented students this year.
Similarly, states with heavy immigrant populations, like California and New York, tend to have more open policies. But exceptions to both of these trends exist — Nebraska, which is neither an immigrant haven nor a left-leaning state, allows undocumented students to pay in-state tuition at state universities.
Under the DREAM Act, California's policy toward undocumented students is among the most open in the country — and some experts consider it to be anomalous.
"In the past, California was known as a trendsetter, but now it is mostly an aberration," said Roy Beck, executive director of NumbersUSA, a nonprofit organization dedicated to lower immigration levels.
But other experts, including John Ellwood, UC Berkeley professor of public policy, and Aarti Kohli, director of immigration policy at UC Berkeley School of Law's Warren Institute, characterize California as a leader on the issue. The nation, they say, is unlikely to gravitate toward the restrictive policies toward undocumented students adopted by states like South Carolina and Alabama.
Alabama's policy is perhaps the most antithetical to California's. While four states explicitly require undocumented students to pay out-of-state tuition — a de facto exclusion, since most undocumented students cannot afford out of state fees — Alabama went a step further.
In 2011, it unequivocally barred all undocumented students from enrolling in public colleges and universities as a part of a package of measures intended to drive illegal immigrants from the state. Courts have temporarily blocked enforcement of several of the law's provisions, including the ban on undocumented students enrolling in public universities.
"Promise free education to every illegal, and you will go bankrupt," said Jim Patterson, a Republican state Representative and co-sponsor of the Alabama law. "You can't even afford education for yourself in California, not to mention the illegals."
Patterson also argued that illegal immigrants take jobs from Alabamans and that leaving public universities accessible to undocumented students, or "rewarding lawbreaking," would draw more illegal immigrants to Alabama.
Patterson's incorporation of financial issues into his argument is likely to resonate with voters. According to Beck, "there is no question that during a bad economy the willingness to put up with a high level of illegal immigration goes way down," pointing to anti-illegal immigration measures taken during the depression of the 1930s and recession of the early 1950s as examples.
State Senator Juan Hinojosa of Texas, a Democratic co-sponsor of a 2005 Texas bill granting an in-state tuition benefit to undocumented students, said the poor state of the economy provides political cover for politicians like Patterson to target illegal immigrants, calling Alabama's bill "a knee-jerk reaction with tinges of racism."
Though 13 states grant undocumented students an in-state tuition benefit, Texas is one of the few states besides California to also offer undocumented students the possibility of state financial aid. Legislators in Texas, where the legislation passed with strong bipartisan support, said states like Alabama allowed politics to get in the way of wise policy-making.
"I think if state officials study the issue not from a political perspective but from a rational perspective, they will make the same decision Texas did," said Democratic state Senator Judith Zaffirini, the author of Texas' law. "For us, it's a no-brainer."
Republican presidential candidate and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who signed Zaffirini's bill into law, agrees with her — to his political detriment in the Republican presidential primary race. Perry forcefully articulated his support for the Texas law in a Sept. 22 GOP debate, arguing that "if you say we should not educate children who came into our state for no other reason than they've been brought there, through no fault of their own, I don't think you have a heart."
Perry's rivals have pounced on his support for undocumented students, calling him weak on immigration, and Ellwood says Perry's position on the issue has been central to his decline in the polls. More than anything, though, the controversy over Perry's position shows that DREAM Act-like legislation is politically incendiary on the national level.
The federal DREAM Act — which would provide a path to citizenship for undocumented students — has been shelved since 2010, when it died in the Senate because of a Republican filibuster.
Immigration groups and some Congressional Democrats continue to push for the federal DREAM Act, and Kohli said cautiously that "many people are hopeful that the national DREAM Act will pass some time in the next few years."
But without a uniform national policy, states continue to make their own, and it is not yet clear whether California will be a trendsetter.
Kohli said more restrictive immigration policies are provoked by rising immigration levels in traditionally nonimmigrant areas but does not think the national trend is in Alabama's direction.
"Migration of Latinos to the South, in particular, is a new phenomenon," she said. "When you have this demographic change, there are reactions to it," referring to tough immigration laws in Alabama and South Carolina.
Ellwood said opponents of DREAM Act-like legislation are defending the "old America."
"The history of the United States has been one political movement after another defending the old America," he said. But, he added, the future is with the immigrants.
Ellwood noted that the short-run national trend will be determined to a large degree by immigrant voting behavior. When Latinos begin to vote at a higher rate, he said, states are likely to adopt policies more favorable to immigrants, such as subsidized tuition at public universities.
But according to Beck, there is no guarantee that Hispanic voters will favor investments in undocumented students. Beck argued that while Hispanic voters are more likely to know illegal immigrants personally, illegal immigrants depress their wages more than any other group. Hispanic voters will only be reliably pro-immigrant to the extent that the issue is racialized, Beck said.
"I can see another four or five states (passing DREAM Act-like legislation), but I don't see it sweeping the country," Beck said.
Beck and Ellwood agree that a national trend will be slow to emerge and that the issue is likely to be defined by conflict and polarization in the short term.
Jack Citrin, professor of political science and director of UC Berkeley's Institute for Governmental Studies, said that the debate surrounding the DREAM Act is really a microcosm of a national debate about the incorporation of immigrants into public life.
Economic and political calculations conducted by people on both sides of the debate, he said, conceal something different.
"It's about a general attitude of who belongs here and who doesn't," Citrin said. "These are the much more emotional issues."