Topeka Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach urged a House committee Thursday to pass a bill repealing a 2007 law that allows anyone who meets certain residency requirements to pay in-state tuition at public colleges and universities, regardless of their citizenship status.
Kobach, who is also a Republican candidate for governor in the 2018 election, argued that Kansas has been violating federal law for the past 14 years by allowing those students to pay in-state rates.
"It's been 14 years now that Kansas has been giving in-state tuition to certain illegal aliens in our state," he told the House Higher Education Budget Committee. "We were one of the first states to make this misstep, and it's long overdue that we correct this."
The law generally states that a person is eligible to pay in-state tuition rates if he or she has attended an accredited Kansas high school for three or more years, has graduated from a Kansas high school or earned a GED certificate issued in Kansas and, in the case of people without legal immigration status, has filed an affidavit stating that either they or their parents are seeking to legalize their immigration status
Kobach argued, as he has many times in the past, that the law violates a 1996 federal statute that says states may not give any post-secondary education benefit to a person who is not lawfully present in the country unless it provides that same benefit on equal terms to U.S. citizens.
Supporters of the state law argue that it meets the federal standard because any U.S. citizen who meets the same eligibility requirements is also eligible to pay the same in-state tuition rate.
In fact, Rep. Brandon Whipple, D-Wichita, noted that many schools in Kansas have been loosening their residency requirements by offering in-state tuition to non-Kansans, including Wichita State University, which he said now offers in-state rates to students from Houston, Texas.
"How is someone who has been in our community, served our community, graduated (from a Kansas high school), been a part of our neighborhoods — how are they less entitled to the benefits of that community, which are our colleges, than some kid from Houston?" Whipple asked.
Kobach, however, said it is also a violation of federal law to encourage or enable someone to remain in the United States illegally, and he said the in-state tuition law does just that.
Shortly after the law was enacted in 2004, Kobach, who was then a constitutional law professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and was a candidate for Congress, filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, or FAIR, seeking to have the law overturned as a violation of federal law.
At the time, at least seven other states had passed similar laws.
That suit was dismissed, however, when U.S. District Judge Richard Rogers found that the named plaintiffs in the suit, all nonresident students who were required to pay out-of-state tuition, could not show how they had been injured by the law.
The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals later affirmed that ruling, and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the case.
But Kobach, who has built a national profile as a crusader against illegal immigration, said the law continues to serve as a "subsidy" for undocumented students amounting to about $12 million a year.
That's the difference between what the approximately 600 students taking advantage of the law currently pay in tuition and what they would have paid if they were charged the full nonresident rates.
Officials at the Kansas Board of Regents, however, questioned that kind of estimate during the board's monthly business meeting on Wednesday.
Regents president and CEO Blake Flanders told the Council of Presidents Wednesday that the figure is only accurate if one assumes those students would still go to college, and pay the full nonresident rate, if the law were not in place, something he said was doubtful.
He also said it's hard to argue how schools are missing out on revenue due to the law if a student paying in-state rates fills a seat in a class that would otherwise be vacant.
Regents officials have said most undocumented students taking advantage of the law attend two-year community colleges and technical schools, where tuition rates are considerably lower than at four-year universities.
Rep. Ponka-We Victors, D-Wichita, testified against the bill, saying its only intent was to take away opportunities from "Dreamers" — people who were brought to the United States illegally as children by their parents.
"Every year since I have served in office, I have witnessed the hateful anti-immigration bills that have come forward, especially directed toward the Kansas Dreamers," she said. "I have also seen that there has been no appetite for anti-immigration bills here in the Legislature."
Opponents of the bill also complained that Thursday's hearing was called with little public notice. The bill was only introduced on Feb. 6, and the hearing was originally scheduled for Monday, Feb. 19.
But Rep. Kevin Jones, R-Wellsville, who chairs the committee, said he moved the initial hearing date up because Monday is the deadline for bills to pass out of committees in their chambers of origin, and he wanted to give committee members ample time to receive testimony before voting on it.
There will be little legislative action on Friday due to the Kansas Republican Party's annual state convention taking place in Wichita over the weekend.
Jones said the hearing on the bill will continue Monday, with a possible vote that day on whether to send it to the full House.