"Governor," I asked Gray Davis at The San Francisco Chronicle's editorial board meeting last week, "I've heard from readers who are very angry about the (University of California) Board of Regents' vote to let undocumented students pay in-state tuition and the passage of AB540. They wonder what citizenship means if you give a break to people who are here illegally. Could you answer that?"
Davis gave as good of an answer as one could, which entailed skipping the citizenship issue entirely.
"I signed AB540," Davis said, "because I believe someone who spends three years in high school and on their own merit gains admission to a California college should not be denied the opportunity to complete their education because their parents many years ago may have decided to enter the country illegally."
It's a good answer. Davis also made a good point when, in answer to a different question, he noted that illegal immigrants benefit the California economy. "The cost of food in the supermarket, at a restaurant or in a hotel are all being subsidized by people who do the work that Americans will not do," he said.
Davis has a point. It doesn't seem fair to tell good kids who do well enough to get into UC -- under the new rules, to qualify for lower tuition, an illegal immigrant must have attended a California high school for three years -- that they must pay the hefty tuition of $11,132 charged out-of-state residents, as opposed to the $4,229 charged to California residents. On the other hand, it's not fair that they weren't born Americans. Or that they weren't born to parents who could afford the out-of-state tuition.
It's also not fair that the tax dollars of citizens and legal immigrants must subsidize -- and hence reward -- the college tuition of students who entered the country illegally.
The reasoning seems to be that because the kids were here illegally and got a subsidized high-school education to reward their parents' flouting of U.S. law, they also deserve a subsidized state college education.
State pols understood that AB540 might rankle those voters still quaint enough to believe that citizenship means something. That's why they included a provision that enabled Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante to tell CNN that qualifying students "are now in the process of being legalized. They've made an application."
Actually, the bill and the UC board of regents' decision require students to sign an affidavit stipulating that they've applied or intend to file for citizenship. Which raises the question: If citizenship were truly imminent, why not wait until it is granted?
Said Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, D.C.: "I think it's appropriate to extend a subsidy to noncitizen children who are legal immigrants. But in-state tuition for illegal aliens means that the people of California are taxing themselves to subsidize strangers, to subsidize those who have not been admitted as guests. It's crazy." Krikorian added, "If you think the UC system isn't getting enough money now, wait 'til you see public reaction when illegal aliens are being subsidized."
Krikorian added that when law-abiding taxpayers have to subsidize law-breaking noncitizens, they get angry enough to vote for measures such as Proposition 187, the 1994 measure that denied health and education benefits to illegal immigrants. (Despite strong voter support, Proposition 187 has since been gutted in the courts.) I do not blame immigrants for breaking American law. They're just trying to improve their children's lot.
I do blame lawmakers, however, who have so little regard for citizenship that they would grant the same benefits to those who have not declared their allegiance to the United States as they would grant to citizens. I blame those who make little distinction between those who have undergone the arduous process of becoming a U.S. citizen and those who flouted federal law because they neither feared nor respected that law.
So here's another question: If politicians don't respect the law, why should citizens respect politicians?