June 15, 2001

Commentary

Wasting Minds?

By Domenico Maceri

Imagine being the valedictorian of your high school and not being able to go to college because of lack of money. Difficult to conceive? Easy, if you are undocumented.

The law is pretty clear about undocumented students. They have the right to be educated up to 12th grade. Beyond that, even when they are accepted by prestigious institutions such as the University of California, they must pay all their fees-about $14,000 a year- exactly what foreign students pay. Legal residents pay only $3,500.

Even a California community college, which is much cheaper at $3,900, is out of reach for these students since they don't qualify for the much lower California resident fees of $330.

What's a California resident? Someone who has been working and paying taxes in the Golden State or whose parents have done so for at least a year. By this measure, these undocumented students have parents who fit the bill. Their parents pay taxes, but their families don't get the benefits.

Undocumented students don't qualify for residency and the low college fees because they are in the country illegally. Yet, the question of who did the illegal act begs to be asked. Is it the worker seeking a job or the company doing the hiring that broke the law?

Certainly, the youngsters have not broken any laws. Their only crime seems to have been good students. They are being punished for a crime their parents may have committed. Even that crime is not a real one. Many undocumented workers risk their lives as they cross the border for the opportunity of a minimum wage job. Some of them don't make it. More than 100 a year die as they try to enter the US.

Their only crime seems to have been born on the wrong side of the river, where work, when it's available, pays only $5 a day. In the US they can make that in an hour. Just imagine if you had a hard time finding a job to support your family and you knew that in Canada you could easily find employment that pays 10 times what you make in your country. Would you make the trip north?

Many Mexicans make the journey and get jobs that Americans don't want because they pay too little or are too hard. These people work long hours, pay taxes, and in many cases get few benefits. One of these benefits denied to them is the low fees to California's colleges.

Clearly since these people work, their kids deserve the benefit of their contributions. We should not hire them if we don't want to give them the benefits of their sweat. The benefits they bestow on us are many.

A study conducted by the National Research Council found that immigrants add more than $10 billion to the economy each year and have relatively little negative effect on job opportunities for most US citizens. And they pay taxes. In the past eight years about $20 billion dollars have been contributed to the Social Security System, which cannot be traced. Since these funds cannot be accounted for, officials estimate that they have been contributed by undocumented workers using phony Social Security numbers.

Benefits from immigration raise the standard of living for all Americans.
Thus in food service, janitorial, domestic, agriculture, and construction you often see undocumented immigrants doing the work.

Who benefits form these people's sweat? Everyone does, from the consumer who pays less for the hamburger or the salad to the hotel guest who might have to pay more if respectable wages were paid. Many small contractors would not exist if they had to find union workers who would demand fair treatment in addition to decent wages.

Imagine if by some miracle all undocumented workers were to go on strike: billions would be lost in agriculture as crops would rot, and food prices would skyrocket. Or maybe the farmers would go to Washington and scream bloody murder. Armies of guest workers would be brought in and upon finishing the harvest, they would be returned to their homeland.

The fact is that the current system with a porous border helps everyone, including undocumented workers, who willingly accept menial work. But these people are human beings and sometimes bring their kids to this country or sometimes they are born here. The offspring have little or no connection with their parents' homeland. They are, in all point and fact, linguistically and culturally Americans without papers, who would feel foreign if they were to go back to their parents' homeland.

In essence these kids are Americans, whose parents work hard and pay taxes. Thus, they should receive the benefits of their contributions and qualify for the lower resident college fees as any other Californian does.

Blocking undocumented students form going to college will cost them their future. But the greatest price will be paid by all of us for we will not benefit from these students' brainpower. Who knows? One of these students might be a surgeon, a professor, an engineer, or whatever they will choose to study.

Denying them a college education is a tragedy for them but a waste for all of us.

"A mind is a terrible thing to waste," says the commercial for the United Negro College Fund. That's right. There are people out there who have money to get these students educated even if our laws are too unfair and inflexible to do so. Bill Gates, George Soros, et al., are you listening?

Domenico Maceri (dmaceri@aol.com), PhD, UC Santa Barbara, teaches foreign languages at Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria, CA.

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