Rep. Dan Douglas (R-Bentonville)
filed a bill today that would grant in-state college tuition to all students who have resided in Arkansas for at least three years and graduated from a high school (or received a high school equivalency diploma) in Arkansas.

The bill makes no explicit mention of undocumented immigrants, but in practice it would appear to allow undocumented students who graduate from high school in the state to be eligible for in-state tuition. Advocates for undocumented students have pushed for such a measure, often called the “Arkansas Dream Act,” for years. At least eighteen states, including Texas, have such laws in place. The idea was championed by Gov. Mike Huckabee in 2005 and passed the House, but failed by a single vote in the Senate.

More recently, Sen. Joyce Elliott has tried repeatedly get such a bill passed. Her bill in 2013 has nearly identical language to Douglas’ bill filed today. The one substantive difference: Elliott’s bill had a requirement that undocumented students file an affidavit with the college or university stating an intent to work toward legal status, similar to a provision in the Texas Dream Act; Douglas’ bill has no such provision.

Douglas’ bill makes no reference to the “Arkansas Dream Act.” Asked about in-state tuition for undocumented students, Douglas said that he had “no dog in that fight” and that was not his purpose or focus in filing the bill. (Douglas said that issues relating to law-abiding undocumented immigrants who arrived here as children — such as DACA or the Dream Act — should be settled at the federal level.)

Douglas said that the bill was intended to help children of immigrants here legally but facing a “greencard backlog” — specifically highly skilled immigrants on temporary work visas who face a years-long wait for a green card and permanent status. This impacts a substantial number of Indian immigrants recruited to work for Walmart and IT companies in Northwest Arkansas.

“These are legal, documented workers who come over here and bring their families,” Douglas said. “But it can be 25 or 30 years before they get their green cards. The children of these workers attend school in the Bentonville School System, graduate from Bentonville High School — a lot of them are very accomplished, scholarly, and succeed in academics, but because their parents don’t have their green cards, they have to pay international tuition and that tuition is three times the in-state rate.”

“These are legal workers, their kids grew up here, and this country is as much their home as my grandkids,” Douglas said. “That’s the reason I’m addressing this.” 

Rep. Megan Godfrey (D-Springdale), the bill’s co-sponsor, said that her own primary motivation was to ensure access to in-state tuition for undocumented students, as well as students from the Marshalese community, who have a special legal status to live and work in the U.S. “My community is really diverse and there are a lot of students who have different immigration stories,” she said. “I think it’s really important that we are making higher education opportunities accessible to all Arkansans, regardless of their immigration story.”

Godfrey is also pushing a bill this session to allow those with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) status to be licensed as Arkansas nurses. “The nursing bill and this bill have the common thread of my core values of compassion, advocacy, and opportunity,” she said. “I campaigned on those values and those really resonated with folks in my community, whether they’re from an immigrant background or not.”

Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, which has fought for more than a decade to grant in-state tuition to undocumented students, supports Douglas’ bill. “It does appear as written that it would allow high school graduates with DACA or similar status to pay in-state tuition at public colleges and universities,” said AACF Northwest Director Laura Kellams.

“We support any proposal that would ensure that all smart and motivated Arkansas high school graduates have the opportunities to earn college degrees,” Kellams said. “If they went to Arkansas high schools, they should qualify for in-state tuition rates. These are the young people who will better our state and its economy with their new skills and education. In a state with one of the lowest college-graduation rates in the nation, it’s hard to see the argument against it.”