If, as expected, the California Board of Regents has its way Thursday, a student from Arizona will soon be paying nearly four times as much as an illegal immigrant to attend a state university there.
That's because the board, which oversees the 10 campuses of the University of California system, may start allowing illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition.
UC is the latest of several university systems to begin offering the benefit to illegal aliens. Many states — among them Texas, which passed a similar law in June at the behest of former Gov. and now-President Bush — tackled the issue quietly.
But heightened awareness of U.S. immigration practices since the terrorist attacks has shined a new spotlight on the trend.
"Sept. 11 has changed the equation," said Ward Connerly, a member of the UC Board of Regents who plans to vote against the in-state tuition policy at a meeting Thursday. "People are more concerned about attaching value to American citizenship."
Most states make illegal immigrants pay out-of-state tuition rates, but others such as Minnesota, Utah, Washington, and North Carolina are looking to change that.
Opponents of the measures argue that such benefits encourage people to come here illegally, hurt legal U.S. residents applying to college and unfairly burden taxpayers who end up footing the bill.
"The offer of in-state tuition at a state university is a major incentive for people to break the law," said Ira Mehlman of the Federation for American Immigration Reform. "You certainly don't want to give people who are in the country illegally a benefit that isn't offered to legal residents of the other 49 states."
But supporters of the efforts contend that many of the students in question are here at the will of their illegal-immigrant parents, have graduated from American public schools and deserve access to affordable higher education.
"Lawmakers felt these children were being unfairly punished for decisions their parents made," said Sara Hebel, a government and politics reporter at The Chronicle of Higher Education. "A lot of college officials and lawmakers think it would benefit us if we furthered their education so they could contribute more to state economies."
Thursday's vote by the 26-member UC Board of Regents is intended to bring the school system into compliance with a law Gov. Gray Davis signed in October.
Under the bill, students who are illegal immigrants will qualify for in-state tuition if they've been a resident of California for at least three years, have graduated from a California high school and sign an affidavit promising they will take steps to become legal. In-state students pay just under $4,000 a year with fees, compared to the almost $15,000 a year out-of-staters pay.
Though he plans to vote "no" to the proposal and encourage his colleagues to follow suit, Connerly expects the measure to pass.
"It's a bad policy," he said. "Students should not be penalized because their parents broke the law — this is their home — but this policy doesn't address that with its requirement of three years of residency."
University groups argue that it is not easy, nor their place, to track an applicant's immigration status. In fact, they say, many don't even know which students are illegal immigrants and which aren't.
"It's very difficult to put it on the colleges to make these kinds of determinations and go through mountains of paperwork," said Paul Hassen, a spokesman for the American Council on Education. "It certainly is giving them extra benefits or perhaps benefits they're not entitled to, but the problem is, how do you identify them?"
Immigration reform advocates like FAIR say universities need a system that lets them easily check an applicant's residency status.
"They want to say, it's not our responsibility," Mehlman said of the colleges. "You have to feel compassion for the poor student caught in the middle, but you can't continually ask taxpayers to pony up more money because the government has failed to enforce the law."
Experts say the issue is tricky because a 1982 Supreme Court decision forbids public elementary and secondary schools from considering the immigration status of students.
"Universities are caught in somewhat of a tough situation," Hebel said. "Since the state can't deny anyone from getting a public education, they become seniors and many are top students, hard-working students who have gone through the system."