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February 01. 2014 10:21PM

State schools don't verify citizen status

University System of New Hampshire schools are not verifying U.S. citizenship of students signing affidavits required by law to get the in-state tuition rate.

Every student admitted to a state university or college since 2013 has had to sign an affidavit swearing he or she is a legal U.S. resident in order to qualify for the in-state tuition rate. But the system doesn't verify their immigration status.

"USNH institutions do not have the capability to review and determine a student's status under the federal immigration laws and regulations," Erika Mantz, director of media relations at the University of New Hampshire, said in a statement.

Rep. Rick Ladd, R-Haverhill, who worked on a recently passed House bill to make it legal for illegal immigrants to qualify for in-state tuition, said he was surprised.

"Wouldn't you think there'd be a process the university has to enforce or verify? I would," Ladd said Saturday after the New Hampshire Sunday News highlighted the verification issue.

"I think any time they're going to have a rule they should have a process that is being applied and there is accountability," said Ladd, who headed a legislative subcommittee on the illegal alien education issue. "Maybe, that's too common sense for me."

Ladd said he would recommend the House Education Committee write a letter to university trustees to inquire why they can't or don't verify students' immigration status. The affidavits are required by state law.

Last month, the New Hampshire House approved a bill that proponents said would allow illegal immigrants to legally secure in-state tuition at schools within the university system - the University of New Hampshire, Plymouth State University, Keene State College and Granite State College.

"I'm as surprised as you," about the lack of verification, Rep. Peter Schmidt, D-Dover, the bill's prime sponsor, said Saturday.

He doesn't think illegal aliens under his bill would falsify documents and risk arrest to save more than $50,000 over a four-year college career.

"They have no idea whether the university is checking or not," Schmidt said.

Many students who entered the United States illegally "were brought here as young people by their parents" and shouldn't be punished because they aren't legal U.S. citizens, he said.

For a student going to UNH in Durham, in-state tuition is $12,720 less than the out-of-state rate this school year. According to the university, 6,639 students pay in-state tuition while 5,390 pay the out-of-state rate.

Federal education officials don't check students' status either.

"The U.S. Department of Education is involved in who is eligible for federal students aid; not legal status law," department spokesman Jane Glickman said in an email.

Schmidt's tuition measure now moves to the state Senate, and if the same bill is approved there, it will move on to the desk of Gov. Maggie Hassan, who hasn't taken a position on House Bill 474.

"While the governor has not yet had an opportunity to review the legislation and discuss it with University System officials, she believes that fully including all members of our communities is critical for New Hampshire's economic success and will closely follow the measure as it is considered by the Senate," said the governor's spokesman, Marc Goldberg.

Mantz said University System officials "remain neutral and have not taking a position on that bill."

Under the bill, students would have to meet other current requirements for in-state tuition and admission standards. They would need to have lived in the state for at least three years and have graduated from a New Hampshire high school or a program that produced a high school equivalency certificate.

The bill also would require the students to apply for legal residency or sign an affidavit that they would apply for legal residency as soon as they are eligible.

"USNH follows the current law and will abide by any changes," Mantz said.

Said Schmidt: "There's an assumption people are going do what they certify they're going to do."

Currently, students receiving in-state tuition must have lived in New Hampshire for at least one year.

Ladd said the proposed bill requires a three-year minimum for undocumented students. "It's actually more harsh than for an out-of-state student," who may later qualify for in-state tuition by making his or her permanent home in the Granite State after only one year, Ladd said.

During the House debate, bill opponents questioned the fairness.

"How do we explain to the voters and the taxpayers of New Hampshire they are going to have to subsidize $13,000 a year more to people who came here illegally," asked Rep. Joe Duarte, R-Candia.

But Enrique Mesa Jr., a Manchester attorney specializing in immigration services, said the bill is a step in the right direction.

"New Hampshire shouldn't be penalizing these students for our federal government not taking action on providing some kind of immigration reform for these students," Mesa said.

How many illegal immigrants this bill may help is an educated guess.

"We're talking estimated projections," Ladd said. "Nobody knows. People aren't coming in saying they're illegal."

To calculate how many illegal immigrants in New Hampshire might qualify for in-state tuition under the bill, Ladd started with a statistic from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security stating 11.9 million illegal immigrants live in the United States. There are also an estimated 50,000 to 65,000 undocumented students graduating from high school in the United States, according to figures quoted by the National Conference of State Legislatures and others. That means for every undocumented student, there are between 183 and 238 illegal immigrants, Ladd said.

The Federation for American Immigration Reform estimates there are 15,000 illegal immigrants living in New Hampshire. Take the 15,000 and apply it against the ratios of 1-in-183 and 1-in-238 and you get between 63 and 82 undocumented students per year in New Hampshire.

Currently, 48 percent of New Hampshire high school graduates attend four-year colleges and universities, but Ladd discounted that figure to 26 percent because illegal immigrant families are less likely to be able to afford a four-year college.

Taking 26 percent of the estimated 63 to 82 undocumented Granite State students equals about 15 to 20 students who might take advantage of the in-state tuition every year, Ladd said.

"No matter how we slice the number, the figures are not huge, but most importantly to me, it's not about the numbers but the opportunity for any child who graduates from a NH high school and who meets conditions of this bill to move forward with his or her educational aspirations at in-state costs and to become a productive member of society," Ladd said in an email.

A 1982 U.S. Supreme Court ruling requires school districts to educate illegal immigrants.

David Ryan, an assistant Manchester school superintendent, said state law requires all students ages 6 to 17 to be enrolled in school.

"All public schools shall enroll all students aged 6 to 21 and provide a free and appropriate public education at public expense," Ryan said in an email.

He said new students enrolling in Manchester must provide proof of residency among other documents, "but we do not require a birth certificate."

The school district doesn't count how many illegal aliens attend its schools.

"We do not ascertain legal or illegal residential status per protections afforded through the Office of Civil Rights," Ryan said.

mcousineau@unionleader.com


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