Remember policy, not politics

Dave Player

At Monday’s CNN/Tea Party Republican debate there may have been eight candidates on the stage but all eyes, including those of his opponents, were on the man in the middle: Gov. Rick Perry. The majority of the evening was occupied by also-rans, such as former Pennsylvania Sen.

Rick Santorum and Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, desperately striving to stay relevant by hurling criticism at the apparent frontrunner. And while the majority of their attacks were focused on Perry’s 2007 executive order concerning HPV vaccines, one of the criticisms lobbed at Perry has particular gravity for many UT students.

When asked how the GOP planned to attract Latino voters, Santorum immediately turned the question into an opportunity to attack Perry and the state of Texas for a 2001 law that allows undocumented students to pay in-state tuition rates. Other candidates joined the piling-on, including Bachmann, who chimed in that “I think that the American Way is not to give taxpayer-subsided benefits to people who’ve broken our laws.” Of course, children who are illegally brought over to this country by their parents are not criminally liable in the sense that Bachmann asserted, but the congresswoman has always been more disposed to sound-bites than to actual policy analysis.

Even former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a candidate who’s always sounded more “country club” than “county fair,” took the opportunity to attack the policy saying that it “only attracts people to continue to come here and continue to take advantage.”

Why of course Romney, it’s not potential employment or freedom from violence that’s driving illegal immigrants across the border. It’s the promise of $5,000 instead of $12,000 for a liberal arts degree. How blind we’ve been.

At the root of the issue is a certain moral cavity that rears its head every election cycle: that politicians abandon sensible policy positions for party-line talking points to pander to a base that makes up a tiny fraction of the electorate. In this case, both Texas’ policy and the proposed national DREAM Act are smart, efficient policies that get thrown to the wayside because Bachmann is louder when she screams for English to be the national language.

There are already eight states other than Texas that offer in-state tuition rates for undocumented students including California, Illinois, New York and candidate Jon Huntsman’s Utah. Furthermore, only two of the other seven GOP candidates have executive leadership experience (Huntsman and Romney) and neither has had to govern a state with a scope of issues as broad as Texas’.

Texas’ in-state tuition policy is more than a civil rights, immigration or law enforcement issue – it’s good economic sense. Currently the state invests significant funds in educating undocumented students from K-12. By denying those students access to higher education or to the job market, Texas would be wasting that investment while squandering valuable human capital. The students targeted by this type of legislation are not your run-of-the-mill teenagers. They are exceptionally bright, having performed well enough to matriculate and graduate from a top university, and could immediately contribute to the work force.

The only alternative would seem to be to deny undocumented children even basic access to education, a course of action that is as irresponsible as it is repulsive.

If the issue is truly a matter of taxes, as Bachmann implies, then providing a path to permanent residency should only help alleviate that problem. These students already pay sales tax. Why not allow them to pay income tax, property tax, etc. as well? Besides, there are already many Texans who pay less in taxes or receive more in-state benefits than undocumented families do. Yet we do not try to make a moral or economic argument to bar them from state higher education.

To deny qualified undocumented students access to the work force because of some asinine political grandstanding is a preposterous waste of human capital and state resources. Given vicious rhetoric thrown around in recent months and the promise of an especially contentious election, it was refreshing to see Perry defending this state’s policy amid an ever-growing rabble of fear-mongering and name-calling. Other moderate-conservative candidates such as Romney should take note that rallying the party’s base doesn’t have to mean abandoning sound and thoughtful policies.

Player is a first-year student in the School of Law.