Editorial: Smart tuition ruling affects few illegal immigrants

The recent state Supreme Court ruling that upholds a law allowing certain illegal immigrants to pay in-state college tuition rates is smart not only from a legal standpoint, but from an economic one as well.

The major beneficiaries of the 2001 law — AB 540 — are young people who already have been living here for years. Indeed, to be eligible for the tuition break, students must have attended high school in California for at least three years, which means the state already has made a considerable investment in free tuition for many of these students.

California, by the way, has no choice in that matter; the federal government requires all states to provide a free K-12 education to children, regardless of their parents’ immigration status.

That is a huge investment — according to the Los Angeles Times, it amounts to as much as $3 billion per year for California alone.

To effectively shut the door on the best and brightest of these students when they are ready to enter college would be a costly mistake. It would mean less taxable income for the state, and would also contribute to a shortage of professional workers in the years to come.

Given the state’s 12 percent unemployment rate, we know it’s hard to believe that California could face a labor shortage. But at some point, the exodus of baby boomers that has been predicted for years will occur.

When it does, the shortage could be particularly acute in counties such as San Luis Obispo, with high populations of retirees and low populations of people younger than 20.

Granted, the in-state tuition breaks are no guarantee of a stable work force — not by a long shot.

For one thing, even though these students may obtain college degrees, unless they are able to qualify for citizenship or legal residency they will be unable to work here legally. That’s absurd — and something the federal government must cure.

Also, we’re talking about an extremely small number of students.

According to the Sacramento Bee, out of 220,000 UC students, just 1,941 benefited from the legislation — AB 540 — in 2007-08. And only 406 of those students were in the country illegally. The rest were U.S. citizens or legal immigrants who, because of an unusual situation — their parents may have been living in another state, for example — would not have met residency requirements otherwise.

Similar breakdowns for CSU and community colleges were not available; Cal Poly officials explained that they don’t ask for citizenship status on college applications.

However, the Bee estimates that fewer than 1 percent of CSU and community college students benefit from AB 540.

Suggesting that the state is losing huge sums of money by granting these few students in-state tuition breaks is ridiculous. That said, we understand that some Californians are vehemently opposed to any level of assistance for illegal immigrants or their children — including those children who were born here and are legal citizens.

Keep in mind, though, that we aren’t talking about giving illegal immigrant students a free ride — they remain ineligible for financial aid.

The in-state tuition, however, at least puts higher education within reach for the truly committed students. In the long run, we believe that will benefit not only the students and their families, but will also lead to a payoff for the investment California taxpayers already have made.

The California Legislature got it right when it overwhelmingly passed AB 540 in 2001. So did the state Supreme Court when it upheld it. Let’s hope that same wisdom prevails at the federal level.