Closing the Schoolhouse Door
A few days before Thanksgiving, undocumented immigrant Nathanaeli Friedman, a student at the City University of New York's Hunter College, received a letter explaining that her tuition was about to be doubled.
"There's no way I can pay it," says Friedman, who came here three years ago to live with the rest of her family, who have been here for 11 years. "I was planning on being a language studies major and maybe a high school teacher, but there's no way I can stay at Hunter. I'm trying to transfer to a community college which is cheaper, but it all happened so suddenly I don't know if it'll work out."
Shortly after September 11, CUNY's administration amended their historically immigrant-friendly policy to charge Friedman and other undocumented students out-of-state tuition rates, instead of the in-state tuition they have paid since 1989, a serious increase for students who are often among the poorest in the system.
The new policy raises undocumented students' tuition from $1250 to $1538 per semester in the community colleges, and from $1600 to $3400 at CUNY's 11 four-year schools. Although the exact number of students who will be affected is not known yet, letters were sent to some 3000 students notifying them that they would no longer qualify for in-state tuition.
The policy now faces opposition on legal, legislative, and grassroots fronts. Three undocumented students have sued CUNY on counts of violating the state educational code, erroneously interpreting the law, and acting in an "arbitrary and capricious" manner. The suit will be argued in court on Friday, and CUNY has agreed to allow students to defer some of their payments until later in the semester, presumably after the suit is settled.
In addition, Bronx assemblyman Peter Rivera has drafted legislation that would allow CUNY to work around the law, imitating legislation already approved in Texas and California. Those states have changed admissions policy so that tuition rates are not based on legal residence, but on where students attended high school.
On the grassroots level, a coalition including students, faculty, immigrant rights groups, unions, religious groups, and political leaders has participated in a series of demonstrations to oppose the policy. The latest of these was a three-day hunger strike last week involving a dozen students and faculty. An earlier protest rally at Hunter College attracted some 300 students.
According to CUNY's general counsel Frederick Schaffer, the changes were made in order to comply with a 1996 federal law which says undocumented immigrants are not entitled to benefits not received by all U.S. citizens. Because citizens from other states must pay higher tuition, CUNY's legal counsel determined that undocumented immigrants, no matter how long they've lived in New York, must also do so.
The policy's opponents state that the administration ignored viable alternatives, and caved into political pressures following September 11. They cite an October 31 New York Times report that State Senator Frank Padavan criticized the city system for allowing illegal immigrants to be CUNY students, saying their presence was both an issue of national security and "an insult to every citizen and legal immigrant seeking a higher education."
In a memo dated November 5, Schaffer notified college presidents of the policy change. Although he says the timing was coincidental and that he'd been working on the memo for weeks, students point out that CUNY had ignored the law since it was passed, and has only now decided to comply.
The students' lawsuit charges that the chancellor's office violated the state educational law when they unilaterally decided to change the policy, because only CUNY's board of trustees is authorized to change tuition rates.
Schaffer defends the administration's actions, saying that the policy change did not alter tuition; rather, it changed the interpretation of who qualifies for the two levels of tuition. In 1989, he says, when they decided to give undocumented immigrants resident rates, they did so without consulting the board of trustees. "Why should we this time?" he asks.
The students also claim the decision was "arbitrary and capricious," because they were notified in November that their tuition would be doubled in January, leaving them no time to find outside resources. Also, they say that the policy was implemented so quickly that registrar's offices had not been sufficiently instructed in immigration law, now a major element of their job.
Alizabeth Newman, director of immigrant initiatives at the CUNY School of Law, agrees that the situation is complicated: "They're going to be dealing with immigration forms that any immigration attorney has trouble understanding, so they're up against some frustration," she says.
Schaffer feels that the CUNY administration has done nothing inappropriate. "We met with registrars to brief them on the change, and we're available for any questions they have, but I think that it's pretty straightforward. We've done this because it's our legal obligation."
Barbara Bowen, president of the Professional Staff Congress (PSC), CUNY's faculty and staff union, believes Rivera's legislation would help solve the problem. "We are not calling on the university to be out of compliance with federal law, but there are ways of being in compliance with the federal law without compromising the university's mission."
The union drafted a letter, co-signed by close to 40 political and community leaders, to CUNY chancellor Matthew Goldstein, calling for a moratorium on the policy change's implementation until the state assembly can consider Rivera's legislation. The chancellor responded that he supports "the principles and remedy inherent" in the legislation, but will not grant a moratorium.
Not everyone favors the bill, however. Jack Martin, a spokesperson for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, says the bill and its Texas and California counterparts go against the intent of the federal law. "They're asking for trouble down the line, because at some point a citizens' group will insist that their tax dollars not be spent in that way," he says.
Senator Padavan agrees. "I have introduced and am working to pass legislation that will ban illegal immigrants from attending publicly supported colleges and universities," he wrote in a recent newsletter to his constituency. "The Board of Trustees can't even really say how many undocumented aliens are enrolled at CUNY. Considering recent events, that's not only absurd, it's a matter of national security."
Student Friedman links these statements to the recent attacks on constitutional rights. "This is about paranoia," she says. "It happened right after September 11. They did not have to do anythingthey say it's because of this bill from 1996, but if that were true, they would have done it in '96. Somebody crashed into the World Trade Center towers and now everybody's paying for it."
Schaffer acknowledges that the policy will force some students from school. "We realize that there will be some impact, and we regret it. But that doesn't change our legal obligation," he says.
Padavan thinks that these students should just try to study legally. "When my grandparents arrived here at the turn of the century, they followed the law," he says. "They came through Ellis Island and were processed like hundreds of thousands of others. Why should there be two standards? I bet if you asked a lot of students if they've applied for student visas, they'd say no. Why not? They're not above the law."
Friedman strongly disagrees. "It took my mother 11 years to get her citizenship. In that amount of time, you could go to college and get a master's and be a CEO of a company!" she says. "They say immigrants are ignorant or illiterate, but if we are it's because they make us that way with these policies."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.