When Rhode Island became the 13th state to allow in-state tuition for illegal immigrants at public colleges, supporters heralded the move as one that would give students the kind of advanced education they need to succeed in the workforce.
But students who are not here legally may still face a major obstacle even with the benefit of a college degree: Many have no immediate pathway to legal status and, under current federal immigration law, employers cannot legally hire them.
"I know of students who have graduated magna cum laude and top honors in their colleges, but right now they're working minimum wage in restaurants," said Antonio Albizures-Lopez, 20, who came to the U.S. from Guatemala when he was 1.
Albizures-Lopez, who is pursuing legal residency, says the best solution is passage of federal legislation, known as the DREAM Act, which provides a pathway to legal residency for college students.
The Rhode Island Board of Governors for Higher Education, which oversees the state's three public higher education institutions, unanimously approved in-state tuition for illegal immigrants last week, effective in the fall of 2012. The General Assembly had failed repeatedly to take action on legislation that's been introduced year after year.
Eleven states — California, Connecticut, Illinois, Kansas, Maryland, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, Texas, Utah and Washington — have laws allowing the children of illegal immigrants to receive in-state rates if they meet certain requirements, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Oklahoma allows in-state tuition for the children of illegal immigrants under a state Board of Regents policy.
Gov. Lincoln Chafee, in urging the Board of Governors to adopt the change, said it would allow more Rhode Islanders to attend college, help build a stronger workforce and boost an economy that is among the nation's most troubled.
Research varies on how much resident tuition rates for illegal immigrants increase enrollment. A 2010 paper co-written by Aimee Chinn, an economist at the University of Houston, did not find a sizable increase overall for 18- to -24-year-olds in the 10 states studied, though it did find that Mexican men in their 20s attended at modestly higher rates. It also found that even in-state tuition may still be too expensive, especially since illegal immigrant students do not qualify for federal education aid.
By contrast, a study this year by the Latino Policy Institute at Roger Williams University in Rhode Island, which looked at an array of research on the issue, said that in-state tuition has led to an enrollment increase among illegal immigrants, on average, of 31 percent in the places it has been implemented.
The Urban Institute has estimated that 65,000 illegal immigrants graduate from high school in the U.S. every year.
But even if more students go on to attend public colleges and universities with the benefit of in-state rates, a big question remains: How will they fare in the workforce after they graduate, even with a degree that traditionally makes it easier to get the kind of high-skill, high-paying job not available to those who finish only high school?
"Even with a college degree, there hasn't been a more general immigration reform that would enable these kids to get a job once they have their degree," said Chinn.
Amanda Pereira, 18, came to the U.S. illegally at the age of 6 from Brazil with her family.
"In a way, it is going to be another dead end," she said. "But in a way it is a help because at least they got through another four years and got their education, so they can find ways to possibly get legalized through an employer."
The Brandeis University freshman was granted legal status — after more than a decade pursuing it — last spring, but is continuing to advocate for illegal immigrant students.
"We do need to continue pushing for the DREAM Act," she said.
That federal legislation — the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act — would provide a pathway to legal residency for illegal-immigrant students providing they meet certain requirements. A December study by UCLA estimated that such students could contribute anywhere from $1.4 trillion to $3.6 trillion to the nation's economy over the course of their careers, depending on how many ultimately obtain citizenship.
But the bill has failed to win the necessary votes on Capitol Hill despite repeated tries, and its prospects for passage are uncertain.
Albizures-Lopez, a resident of Lincoln who graduated from Blackstone Academy Charter School in 2009, called in-state tuition a "stepping stone" to college but added, "It's not complete. It's not even halfway complete."
He says he has "protected status" while his legal case for residency is pending, so he is able to work a part-time job coaching soccer at a private high school. He plans to apply to college, including the University of Rhode Island and Rhode Island College, where he could get in-state rates. URI's in-state tuition is $9,824, compared to $25,912 for out-of-state.
Terry Gorman, executive director of Rhode Islanders for Immigration Law Enforcement, opposes in-state tuition for illegal immigrants. He cites a 1996 federal law that laid out certain restrictions on illegal immigrant benefits, and says it's a violation of that statute to provide in-state tuition to students who came here illegally, on the basis of residence, if the same break is not available to all students — including those from out of state.
Students paying out-of-state rates at California institutions mounted a legal challenge on those grounds, but the state Supreme Court upheld the in-state tuition policy, saying it did not conflict with federal law. The U.S. Supreme Court in June declined to hear the case.
But Gorman also maintains that the policy change offers students in the U.S. illegally a "false hope" about their post-graduation prospects.
"This is going to be an educated population that can't do anything with their education because they're illegal aliens," he said. "What do they do? They can't work."
Kimberly Mehlman-Orozco, who conducted the Latino Policy Institute study at Roger Williams, points out that, while that's the law, it isn't necessarily the reality. She said that under current enforcement practices, many who are here illegally are in fact being hired. That being the case, she said, they may as well be college-educated.
Under the new policy in Rhode Island, in-state rates will be available only to illegal immigrants' children who have attended a high school in the state for at least three years and graduated or received a GED. Students also must commit to seek legal status as soon as they are eligible, or lose their resident tuition.
Supporters of the policy change say it would affect approximately 140 students in Rhode Island.