Picking battles

Lawmakers should offer in-state tuition to immigrants but not driver's licenses

Oregon legislators have an ambitious to-do list for the 2013 session. Among other big topics is immigration. Democrats, back in control of both chambers, hope to pass at least one bill they couldn't get approved in 2011, and immigrant rights supporters hope to see a second change made as well. Lawmakers should pursue the first but wait to see what Congress does before tackling the second.

The first item would allow in-state tuition rates for immigrants brought here illegally by their parents and educated in Oregon schools. It was a good idea in 2011, when Republicans blocked it, and it's a good idea now, and one already on the books in California and Washington.

The second item would allow illegal immigrants to drive legally, something they haven't been able to do since 2008. There are arguments to be made in favor of that move, mostly having to do with traffic safety, but the issue is divisive, and could be rendered irrelevant if Congress enacts reforms providing a path to citizenship for undocumented workers already in this country.

The tuition bill applies to immigrants who came here as children and attended Oregon schools for at least three years before graduating. They would have to gain admission to a state college or university, the same as any other student, and would not be eligible for fiancial aid. The also would have to apply for legal residency so they could work legally in the state upon graduation.

The bill would mean the difference between paying $9,258 a year and paying $28,653.

Two years ago, opponents claimed this change would cost the state money. That argument made no sense then and still doesn't. Without the bill, immigrants students won't attend college at all because they can't afford it. With the bill, the Oregon University System estimated three additional students would be admitted statewide the first year and 33 the second, requiring no new faculty.

Children brought here by their parents are not responsible for the decision to enter the country illegally, and they have grown up here and are for all intents and purposes American. It makes sense for the state to offer them the opportunity to increase their earning power and their contribution to Oregon's economy.

The issue of driver's licenses is more problematic. An argument can be made that undocumented workers will drive whether or not they can get a license, so licensing them gives the state leverage to require insurance and test their driving abilities. Opponents argue licenses would unfairly grant illegals the same level of identification as citizens.

The whole issue could become moot if Congress enacts immigration reform at the national level providing a path to citizenship for illegal aliens already living here. Oregon lawmakers should pass the tuition bill and wait to see what happens in Washington, D.C., before moving on the driver's license issue.


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