OUR VIEW: A mind is a terrible thing to waste (poll)

ed Updated: January 16, 2013 at 12:00 am • Published: January 16, 2013

State politicians cannot fix our federal immigration mess. Yet, they can craft laws that ensure our best and brightest young immigrants help improve Colorado’s economy and standard of living. A mind is a terrible thing to waste, whether it resides in Colorado with or without permission of the federal government.

We probably cannot tax or cut our way out of this country’s unfortunate federal debt-to-income ratio, which ultimately threatens payment of the entitlements that account for our seemingly dismal economic future. We must grow our way out of this dilemma and that means we need high-level innovation and production. Our state, and our country, must cure diseases for the rest of the world if we are to prosper. We must develop more of the software programs that create efficiencies and improve lives. We must design and build the cars, planes and personal products the rest of the world wants and needs.

To achieve this, we need large generations of young people who are educated and productive, not under-educated and, therefore, dependent and irrelevant to the needs of a sophisticated economy.

“We used to lead the world in young adults with college degrees; the United States now ranks 14th and is dropping,” explains CNN’s Fareed Zakaria.

Even the most vociferous critics of our country’s flawed immigration system should agree that an uneducated illegal immigrant presents more problems for our country than one with a college education. Yes, we need a working class of immigrants if we want to avoid more episodes of unharvested crops rotting in fields. But for meaningful economic growth, we need more scientists, engineers, doctors and nurses.

Toward this end, Colorado legislators plan to introduce legislation this week to make qualifying illegal immigrants eligible for in-state tuition.

Opponents question the wisdom of rewarding illegal residency with tuition “subsidies.” They wisely do not want to further reward or encourage unlawful residency, which the federal government could regulate with strict border control and better overall immigration policies.

The movement toward in-state tuition for illegal immigrants targets only those foreigners who were brought to this country as children — some only a day or two old — and grew up as students in Colorado schools as they and their parents paid taxes. These are teenagers with no place to go. Price them out of tuition and they are likely to work menial jobs or, worse, become dependent on the state. Neither scenario stands to elevate Colorado’s economy the way a solid education might.

It’s easy to understand reactions of repulsion to another subsidy for another special interest. But in-state tuition should not be seen as a subsidy. It is a price for those who have supported these institutions with taxes. One cannot grow up in Colorado, even as an illegal immigrant, without supporting higher education. If illegal immigrants have found a way around taxes, they should write books about their magical prescriptions for tax avoidance.

In-state tuition is a price for Colorado taxpayers, while out-of-state tuition is a premium charged to those who have spent no time paying taxes here. In-state students at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs pay $5,726 in tuition; out-of-staters pay more than three times that amount because they and their parents have done nothing to subsidize the school. While state-government schools charge triple for out-of-staters, most for-profit and private institutions have only one price. That’s because no one, even in-state students, supports them with taxes. Residents of Colorado subsidize colleges, not vice versa.

Though in-state tuition for illegal immigrants poses obvious long-term economic benefits, it also raises concerns that proponents must address.

“Let’s define a clear path of citizenship for these kids,” said House Majority Leader Mark Waller, R-Colorado Springs. “Because giving education without citizenship does nothing to provide opportunity for them.”

True. So pass a bill that ties in-state tuition and bestowal of degrees to deadlines for achieving citizenship.

Legislators also must craft a bill that offers in-state tuition for illegal immigrants without displacing American citizens who have grown up in Colorado. We should not have citizens with 3.4 GPAs displaced by illegal immigrants with 3.5 GPAs. Offer in-state tuition, but create a state admissions policy that gives reasonable preference to citizens.

Legislators face a difficult task in opening opportunities for children of illegal immigrants. The right bill will turn promising young students into assets for generations to come.

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