Senate considers immigrant scholarships

Karon Parrish

   The Arkansas 85th General Assembly is currently proposing a bill in the Senate making undocumented immigrants eligible for state taxpayer-funded college scholarships and in-state college tuition rates.

   The bill was endorsed by a committee of the Arkansas House of Representatives under House Bill 1525 by Rep. Joyce Elliott (D-Little Rock). This bill is part of Gov. Mike Huckabee’s legislative package. Elliott is also chairwoman of the House Education Committee.

   “It is important to understand the people's perception is not reality. These students are undocumented, which is different from illegal. They are children without status in the law. They literally have no way to become citizens until Congress acts,” Elliott said. “In the meantime, these children are in Arkansas, will remain here as adults. Would it not be better to have them here educated?”

   Only one committee member, Rep. Mike Kenny (R-Siloam Springs), voted against it. 

   “It’s wrong to portray those who oppose Elliot’s bill as biased against Hispanics. I just have an issue with state money going to citizens that technically are not citizens of this country,” Kenny said. “It’s a very emotional issue. To me, it’s not against somebody. It’s the rule of law. We have a lot of minorities in our community and they are valuable and wonderful people to our community. For me, it’s not against a race. It’s about who’s legal and who’s not.”

   Jimmy Jeffress of Crossett is District 24 Senator for Ashley, Bradley, Chicot, Desha and Drew counties.

   “Several reports have incorrectly identified this bill as a scholarship funding program for illegal aliens,” Jeffress said. “I am in no way prepared to support illegal aliens. The correct term is undocumented immigrants which mean that they have not completed all their paperwork to become U.S. citizens but they have started the process thereby making them undocumented and not illegal.”

   Under HB1525, undocumented immigrants must have attended high school in Arkansas for no fewer than three years to apply for a scholarship.

   “Either way, these school children are not here on their own. They came with their parents. The parents are paying taxes (sales tax, income tax, etc.) and are contributing to our economy. Often times, they are working at low wage jobs that no one in our local communities is willing to take. Why should we be punitive against these kids? This is a common sense bill and is the right thing to do,” Jeffress said.

   The University of Arkansas at Monticello does not currently have undocumented aliens enrolled in classes.

   “We do not have any known undocumented aliens in school right now,” Admission director Mary Whiting said. “But, there has already been an interest expressed from neighboring county students since the bill has been introduced.  I’m watching the paper for updates.”

   Undocumented immigrants account for about 27,000 people in Arkansas according to the federal Immigration and Naturalization Service. The 2000 U.S. Census total Hispanic population in Arkansas is about 86,000.

   Understanding the immigration laws is extensive and time consuming. There are many ways in which immigrants may be living in the United States, such as temporary visas for employment, living with relatives who are already American citizens, applying for humanitarian relief or on visas given to those who are considered “special immigrant investors.”  The federal government’s Website has information that can be accessed at

   The bill is not directed solely at any particular group but Hispanics provide the majority of undocumented immigrants in Arkansas.

   “I believe this (providing scholarships to undocumented immigrants) is great,” said J. Francisco Moreno, UAM assistant professor of French and Spanish. “Whether we like it or not, (the immigrants) are part of our community. When members of our community lack an education, the whole community suffers the consequences. Opportunities for a better education can only bring benefits to the community as a whole.”

   Elliot defended the bill as the right thing to do.

   “I introduced the bill and fought for its passage because it gives children who have done nothing wrong and who should not be held responsible for their parents' action a chance for success,” Elliot said. “These are students will take nothing away from others. Students must pay their way. If they get a scholarship, they must earn it. The next challenge is to pass the bill through the Senate.”

   The Academic Challenge scholarship is available to students with at least a 2.75 grade point in college prep courses if they plan to attend a two-year college and at least a 3.0 GPA to attend a four-year college.  

   The Governor’s Distinguished scholarship is available to students with at least a 3.5 grade point average and a 27 ACT score.

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