Leader Blues

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

EDITORIAL >> Lacking compassion

The Know Nothing Party foundered 150 years ago because it could not stir enough Arkansans to fear being overrun by their culture, corrupted by Irish and German Catholics, but its descendants are alive and well. Still another bill to allow some undocumented immigrants to attend college in Arkansas at regular tuition rates died in the state Senate after a few people complained that it would invite a horde of Mexicans into the state.

The Senate Education Committee buried a bill by Sen. Joyce Elliott to allow immigrant kids to attend state universities and technical colleges at the regular tuition rates if they attended Arkansas high schools the previous three years and graduated with the requisite course work and if they signed affidavits saying they intended to seek citizenship.

Sen. Elliott tried to do it in 2005 and had the warm support of Governor Mike Huckabee, who took a beating from nativist Republicans for his stand for Christian compassion. Rush Limbaugh, Mitt Romney and Tom Tancredo gave him a pounding in the presidential campaign, but he sometimes stood his ground. It is the only premise for the case that Arkansas traded down when it elected Mike Beebe to take Huckabee’s place. Beebe says that while he is somewhat sympathetic, he opposes in-state tuition for undocumented youngsters because he believes it conflicts with federal law. His education director naturally adopts the same attitude.

It is a thin argument. Eleven states, including fiercely anti-immigrant Oklahoma and Texas, have adopted the same in-state tuition policy. It is less than clear that the bill would flout the federal mandate, which says that an unlawful alien cannot be eligible for any post-secondary benefit that is not available to citizens from other states if the benefit is based only upon residency in the state.

Of course, it would not be based purely upon Arkansas residency but upon the students having mastered three years of high school in Arkansas and met other requirements.

But the federal law conveniently allows the governor and legislators to please the nativists without answering to their own consciences: I just hate it, but the feds made me do it.

Dr. David Gearhart, the chancellor of the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, needed no such alibi. He did not think the bill violated federal laws and he believed its passage “is very important to the future of this state.” But he didn’t prevail. The legislators thought it better to keep the youngsters uneducated and unproductive than to risk letting them enjoy even one small benefit of our benevolent society. —E.D.