While federal efforts to fix our broken immigration system remain on hold, support is growing among state lawmakers for common-sense, proactive approaches that welcome immigrants and expand opportunity for all, both immigrant and native-born.  Across the country, a growing and diverse number of forward-thinking state legislators are turning away from unconstitutional, divisive, and economically devastating approaches taken by states such as Arizona and Alabama. Instead they are advancing inventive policies that make economic sense for states’ bottom lines and uphold their reputations.  One such approach, tuition equity, continues to gain political and popular support and build momentum in statehouses across the country.

Under current federal law, states have the option to enact laws that grant the same access to higher education for undocumented students as their U.S. citizen and legal permanent resident classmates.  Fourteen states have already enacted such laws with several more poised to move this year. Only a month into the 2012 session, pro-active legislators have already introduced bills to increase access to higher education in five states:

  • In Colorado, SB 15 (also known as ASSET), moved swiftly through committee and is expected to pass a floor vote in the Senate today, and likely through the House next week.
  • In Hawaii, HB 1674 and SB 2163, are both expected to pass their respective committees.
  • Florida’s HB 81 has become a hot-button issue as students and immigration advocates, including Dream Activists, have pressed their representatives to pass the bill.
  • Similar measures in New Jersey and New York are also gaining steam—in New York, the board of the state university system (known as SUNY) unanimously passed a resolution in favor of tuition equity last month.

Tuition equity laws expand educational access for undocumented and non-resident students but, importantly, also increase the revenue stream for state university systems—expanding the resources available for all students at a time when budget crunches loom.  In Colorado, for example, proposed tuition equity bills will bring in over $2.8 million in additional revenues within the state university systems next year.

Proposals like tuition equity are especially important now, as our nation faces a serious shortage of college educated workers. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, two-thirds of the occupations or industries projected to see the highest growth by 2018 will require a college degree. As the fundamentals of the global economy shift to favor highly-educated workers needed to power high-tech industries, America’s future prosperity depends on retaining and educating qualified and talented undocumented students.

Globally competitive firms have also registered their need for more highly skilled labor; perhaps most famously, the late Steve Jobs remarked to President Obama that Apple moved its operations overseas because the U.S. lacked the 30,000 qualified engineers necessary to run its factory. An unlikely, but potent, coalition of business leaders, immigration activists, and education officials, from principals to guidance counselors, is joining state legislators to move tuition equity legislation in statehouses all over the country.

These legislators are at the forefront of a growing consensus surrounding the political reality on immigration: Americans want a fair, practical, and humane approach that makes economic sense and expands opportunity for all, immigrant and native born. An overwhelming 70% of Americans favored federal DREAM Act proposals in a June 2010 poll—up 12% from a similar poll taken in 2004.

Smart policymakers realize that the purchasing power of immigrants—combined with their contributions—to state revenue streams will help revive a sluggish economy and alleviate budget pressures in the short term. In the long term, they also know that integrating immigrant populations into the broader economy will multiply that effect at the local and national level.

In fact, immigrant entrepreneurs have had an enormous effect on the economy at large—especially in Silicon Valley where they’ve helped create half a million jobs and generated over $50 billion in revenue. In particular, immigrant women’s entrepreneurship rates have exploded in the last ten years—solidifying their role as dynamic participants in the American economy and community.

Integrating undocumented immigrants into American life is a humane and economically viable goal. It acknowledges that America is a nation borne of the dreams and tenacity of immigrants, and that the vision of a prosperous America involves the most talented young people powering an economy that can meet the needs of the 21st century—regardless of immigration status. The budding momentum of the tuition equity movement is a step in the right direction for the country—a step that Congress can and should follow.

Photo by NoDivision.