By Mike Ward | Monday, May 9, 2011, 02:07 PM
A proposed amendment to a higher-education bill that would prohibit non-U.S. citizens from getting in-state tuition rates at Texas colleges and universities touched off an acrimonious debate and confusion this afternoon in the Texas Senate.
Opponents questioned why Texas, at a time when census figures show it is becoming more and more Hispanic, would want to penalize a group that includes mostly Hispanics. They called it unfair and insulting.
But Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, the author, defended the amendment as an attempt to protect the rights of Texas taxpayers, who he said are footing the bill for education for more than 16,000 noncitizens.
After 20 minutes of sometimes-emotional debate, Birdwell temporarily withdrew his amendment, which has been a key goal of some conservative GOP groups.
An angry Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, insisted the change will unfairly punish college-age children for a mistake by their parents, echoing comments from other senators — Democrats and Republicans.
Birdwell said he wants to be fair to Texas taxpayers, who do not want to support noncitizens with cheaper tuition.
“What your amendment does is it takes it out on the kids,” said an irritated Van de Putte, noting that current state law, enacted in 2001, was designed to keep noncitizens’ children in school and to encourage them to go to college.
Van de Putte said out-of-state tuition will double the cost of education for the affected students.
Birdwell said more than 16,000 noncitizen students are currently attending state colleges and universities, at a cost of more than $50 million a year. He said they should pay the higher tuition rate.
Under his proposal, only noncitizen students who are currently enrolled would be exempted from the higher rates.
Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, was among several senators to strongly object.
“These people are here working, waiting tables, roofing houses, working in agriculture,” Duncan said. The current law “turns these kids into good U.S. citizens. … To me, I think this is the wrong message to send to these young people who are currently in high school, working hard.”
Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville, used a Bible verse to underscore his displeasure at the proposal. “You shall have the same law for the stranger, and for one from your own country,” he said, quoting from Leviticus.
“I take offense at your amendment,” Lucio told Birdwell. “These students didn’t chose to come here at a young age. They’re trying to get their education and become good citizens. … I just hate where we’re going this session with this type of amendment.”
Sen. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio, challenged Birdwell’s assertion that his goal is being fair to taxpayers. He said noncitizens pay sales taxes and gas taxes and other state fees that keep state government operating, not to mention that the students are paying tuition to support state colleges and universities.
“These kids have done everything we’ve asked them to do, and now this,” Uresti said.