OKLAHOMA got it right so many years ago when lawmakers embraced the idea that young people whose parents brought them into the United States illegally shouldn't bear the legal or financial burden of that decision. Unfortunately, such vision and open-mindedness has dwindled over the years.
The law that allowed such students to attend college at in-state tuition rates and get state-funded scholarships has been scaled back and is far less friendly to undocumented students pursuing higher education. We remain hopeful the tide will someday shift again in favor of opportunity.
Fewer than 500 undocumented students attend Oklahoma's public colleges and universities. Not surprisingly, the school with the highest number of these students is Oklahoma City Community College, with 163. OCCC is in southwest Oklahoma City where many Hispanic families have settled in recent years. Tuition is low at OCCC and other two-year schools compared with four-year schools. Tulsa Community College, also a two-year school, reported the second-highest number of undocumented students, with 94.
For these students, a college education represents the best hope for meaningful career opportunities and financial stability. They want the American dream. Without a permanent decision on federal immigration policy — Congress is working presently, and slowly, to crack that nut — the futures for undocumented students are still very much in flux. A deferred action program is allowing some to obtain driver's licenses and pursue other previously limited privileges. But when it comes to higher education, Oklahoma needn't continue to wait on the federal government to do the right thing by students who have done no wrong.
Clearly, undocumented students aren't overrunning the state's colleges and universities. No matter their determination, the students and their families face significant barriers in the pursuit and financing of higher education. Without legal residence, low wages rule the day. Many young people must work to help support their families, which gets in the way of many Hispanic students even finishing high school.
It makes little sense to support these students through the common education system, only to either shut the door to higher education or make it so difficult to open that many give up. Oklahoma needs more highly educated citizens. And make no mistake, many of these students are Oklahomans, raised here from a young age. They attend local churches, participate in youth sports and contribute to society in a positive way if given the opportunity.
In The Oklahoman's recent special report on the issue, we were struck by comments from Jerry Kammer, a senior research fellow for the Center for Immigration Studies, an organization that typically favors less immigration.
“I think these kids are our kids now, and their success would be our success,” Kammer said of students brought into the United States at a young age. “Their failure would be our failure as a country.”
What if the country — and Oklahoma, even on its own — started focusing on the success of all of its students and tried to create opportunity instead of limiting opportunity? Students would still have to do the hard work; they just would have fewer adults and bad policy standing in their way.