Jessica Colotl, an illegal immigrant and student at Kennesaw State University… (John Amis / Associated Press )
Reporting from Washington — Anngie Gutierrez was a child when she arrived in the United States as an illegal immigrant 10 years ago. There's still no path to legal status for her, but in Maryland and a handful of other states, there is a more affordable road to college.
Gutierrez, a high school junior in Hyattsville, Md., will benefit from a new state law that allows illegal immigrants who reside there to pay in-state tuition rates at Maryland's public colleges. If she lived in Virginia, about 15 miles to the west, she would find that many public colleges require undocumented students to pay out-of-state tuition.
Some Virginia legislators want to go further: In February, the House of Delegates passed legislation that would prohibit the state's public universities from admitting illegal immigrants. The proposal has not passed the state Senate.
The states' radically different approaches illustrate the polarization of Americans over what to do about the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants living in the U.S., and the heated nature of a debate that extends far from border states such as Arizona and California.
The tuition battle has grown, in part, because of a lack of action by Congress. The federal government holds jurisdiction over immigration law, and a 1982 Supreme Court ruling mandated that states provide illegal immigrants with access to K-12 education in public schools. But the absence of a comprehensive federal immigration plan has given states relatively free rein to impose their own rules on issues such as who can attend public colleges, and at what rates.
"If you don't have a coherent immigration policy, then you end up with 50 different rules about what kinds of authority police have to stop people, what kinds of documents you have to carry around and so on," said Angela Kelley, vice president for immigration policy at the Center for American Progress, a think tank in Washington. "You can have two states right next to each other, identical profiles of the foreign-born … and yet you get this incredible difference in outcome and treatment toward newcomers."
Gutierrez also would be eligible for in-state tuition if she graduated from high school in one of 11 other states, including border states such as California, New Mexico and Texas. On Thursday, Connecticut's House passed a bill guaranteeing in-state tuition at its public colleges to illegal immigrants who live there.
But Gutierrez would pay out-of-state rates if she lived in Arizona, Georgia or Colorado. Georgia adds an extra barrier by prohibiting public universities from enrolling undocumented students if the school has rejected any academically qualified applicants for the last two years because of enrollment limits.
South Carolina does not allow undocumented students to attend its public universities. Alabama bars admittance to its community colleges. Other states — including Virginia — avoid the issue by leaving it up to individual schools to determine tuition rates for undocumented students.
Immigration policy has long been a divisive issue, but since a federal judge blocked controversial parts of an Arizona immigration law last year, the topic has been dominated by heated rhetoric. The federal DREAM Act, which would provide young people who were brought to the country illegally a path to citizenship if they met certain criteria, failed in Congress last year. It was reintroduced by Democrats on Wednesday, but faces long odds in the Republican-controlled House.
Kelley believes a majority of U.S. lawmakers see the need for immigration reform, but said Congress gets caught up in the same politics driving the differences between states on the tuition issue.
"If lawmakers could vote anonymously on immigration reform, then you would have an overwhelming vote in support of comprehensive reform," she said. "But it's very tied up in the politics. There's just a lot more shouting than there is sober thinking."
The opposing political leanings of Virginia and Maryland, two states that are relatively new destinations for illegal immigrants, have sparked different reactions to the influx, according to Raul Hinojosa-Ojeda, a UCLA professor and immigration expert.
"Bottom line, I think it comes down to the fact that, politically speaking, the Republican Party can appeal to its older, white base that says, 'You don't want to see this change,' " Hinojosa-Ojeda said, "while the Democratic Party has a younger, more multicultural base that is more open to that change."
Yet some conservatives also see the peril in states dictating policies on educating illegal immigrants.
Jena McNeill, a homeland security policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington, agreed that "the federal government hasn't done what they need to do, and because of that, you see states taking it upon themselves to handle it. And every state has its own political bent or certain partisan ways."