A group of undocumented college students is expressing concern over a bill they say could affect their ability to continue their education.
But the measure's future is in doubt, with the bill's House sponsor saying she would be willing to amend or abandon it.
Senate Bill 423 would require students to be U.S. citizens to qualify for in-state tuition at Oklahoma public colleges and universities. It's unclear how the bill would affect undocumented students who are enrolled now.
The bill passed out of the Oklahoma Senate last week by a 43-0 vote and then headed to the House. It has been referred to the House Appropriations and Budget Committee.
Eleazar Velazquez, 23, is pursuing a degree in architecture at the University of Oklahoma. He isn't enrolled at OU this semester. He hopes to re-enroll as a senior in the fall, but he's concerned the bill could derail those plans.
“That's the only thing that frightens me,” he said.
Velazquez was among members of Dream Act Norman and Dream Act Tulsa who visited legislators at the Capitol recently to express their concerns.
Velazquez, a Millwood High School graduate, came to the United States from Mexico when he was 4. After moving from place to place for several years, his family settled in Oklahoma City in 1996.
As an undocumented student, he isn't eligible for federal financial aid programs such as Pell Grants or federal student loans. He recently applied for deferred action, which allows him to get a job to pay for college.
A U.S. Department of Homeland Security policy known as Deferred Action allows certain undocumented immigrants who were brought into the country as young children to stay in the country temporarily. The policy allows those immigrants to apply for two-year work permits that would let them stay in the country.
Velazquez said he's concerned that the bill would keep him from being able to finish his degree. The bill would require him to pay considerably more for tuition, he said, and federal financial aid restrictions leave him with fewer resources to do so.
OU's undergraduate tuition and fees for this academic year come to an estimated $8,700 for state residents and $20,300 for nonresidents.
Students now eligible
Under current law, undocumented students may be offered in-state tuition if they graduated from high school in the state and lived here with a parent or legal guardian for at least two years before graduation. Undocumented students must file an affidavit with the college or university saying they plan to apply for legal status as soon as they're eligible to do so.
State higher education Chancellor Glen Johnson said the bill, in its current form, would adversely affect undocumented college students, possibly including students who are enrolled now.
The bill doesn't provide a mechanism for allowing students who are in school now to continue paying in-state tuition.
A provision in the bill says the measure wouldn't affect “eligibility for other in-state higher education benefits,” but that doesn't offer any specific instructions to the Oklahoma Regents for Higher Education on how to implement the law.
“At best, that's probably unclear,” he said.
Author wants to help
Originally, the bill sought to allow students who graduated from Oklahoma high schools and then left the state to return to Oklahoma and qualify for in-state tuition.
The bill was amended in the Senate Appropriations Committee to include language related to undocumented students.
Rep. Emily Virgin, the bill's House author, said she understands those students' concerns. In its current form, the bill could cause confusion about who qualifies for in-state tuition, she said.
Virgin said she's working with Oklahoma Regents for Higher Education staff to find out how the agency would apply the bill if it passed, and said she is “more than willing” to amend the bill or let it lie dormant until the next legislative session.
“There is no one in the state Legislature more committed to helping undocumented students than myself,” Virgin said. “I can assure the students I will not let anything pass out of the House that could possibly hurt their educational opportunities.”