My mom and dad were born in Iowa. Twenty-five years later, when I was born, they lived and paid taxes in Tennessee. When my senior year of high school rolled around, I had lived in Tennessee my whole life, and therefore I got in-state tuition at the Tennessee college I attended. Legislators in Tennessee didn’t tell my parents that because they were from Iowa, I was an out-of-state student. And so I was eligible to pay in-state tuition. In return, after graduation I worked in Tennessee for years before moving to Charleston. Apparently legislators in Tennessee understand that having more college-educated residents is good for the state.
Legislators in South Carolina haven’t recognized this obvious point. According to state law, children of undocumented immigrants cannot receive in-state tuition when it comes time to pay for college. This is true even if they were born in South Carolina, which means they’re U.S. citizens.
For these students, the Palmetto State might be the place where they’ve attended schools, made friends, gone to slumber parties, played soccer, and had their first kiss, but if their parents are undocumented immigrants, then according to state law, they don’t count. They may have been born here, but they parents weren’t, and that’s all that matters.
Does this trouble anybody?
Make no mistake about it, our state has attempted to legalize second-class citizenship, something which it certainly has experience in. In 2011, the General Assembly passed an immigration-reform bill that did everything from allow cops to demand proof of citizenship at traffic stops (you know, if you look Hispanic) to make it illegal to give an undocumented immigrant a ride. While key components of this legislation have been blocked by a federal appeals court, one important element hasn’t been: certain South Carolinians don’t qualify for the in-state tuition every other in-state kid is getting.
In case you’re not yet convinced our legislators see the children of undocumented immigrants as second-class citizens, please note what state Sen. Larry Grooms said in 2011 when he was discussing the need for this law: “[Undocumented immigrants] cling together in illegal communities and bring with them drugs, prostitution, violent crimes, gang activity.”
So when a high school student (and native South Carolinian) has been an excellent student, served in student government, been active in various student organizations, and has often had a part-time job on top of that, why does it make sense to even mention that student in the context of “drugs, prostitution, violent crimes, gang activity”?
The Southern Poverty Law Center has been active in opposing this law. A similar law was recently blocked in Florida because it was identified as violating the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. This is the clause that says that states can’t deny anybody equal protection under the law — it was the basis for Brown v. Board of Education and is generally understood to mean that state and federal laws can’t discriminate against folks because of the groups they belong to.
This discrimination is what’s happening in South Carolina. Why don’t we want qualified South Carolina high school students to be encouraged to attend college, regardless of where their parents were born? This law doesn’t help anybody — not colleges, not employers, and certainly not students. By punishing these students for the actions of their parents, they are being deprived of one of the benefits of South Carolina citizenship.
I urge our legislators to change the law, and soon.