It’s rare that the debate over a state law irks me enough to write an op-ed about it.
The Yale College Democrats are currently pushing the Connecticut State Legislature to pass SB 398 — important legislation that would reform financial aid at public universities. That sounds relatively innocuous, right? Indeed, it certainly would be if it weren’t for the bill’s main provision: undocumented students finally get access to financial aid programs.
Cue the firestorm. Including that one word, “undocumented,” changes everything. Regardless of the controversy, SB 398 must pass.
Why, oh why, am I up in arms about a State General Assembly bill? There’s the future of Obamacare hanging in the balance, a presidential race heating up and certainly more exciting national news than a meaningless Connecticut bill, right?
I disagree. Hundreds of pieces of state legislation are passed each year that nobody hears about, many of them about topics as important as gun control, abortion and gay rights. It seems pretty evident to me that we should be paying far more attention to state legislatures — and we should certainly keep our eyes on bills like SB 398 — but let’s set that point aside for now.
The bigger issue is that this bill represents a job half-finished, something emblematic of most legislation these days. Politicians are capricious. It’s not easy to get them to focus on any bill, let alone follow through on an entire issue.
Take this very bill for example. In 2011, the state legislature passed a bill that allowed undocumented students to have access to in-state tuition. I’m sure there were cheers heard around the Democratic establishment for weeks. And as a Democrat, I certainly would have been cheering too. That’s the problem. We laud our politicians for taking any incremental step in the right direction. We let them be complacent, tolerating minimal change instead of meaningful reform.
With in-state tuition rising, however, how are students expected to pay without financial aid? It’s like buying someone a car without giving them the keys; without the keys, it’s an expensive gift that’s almost entirely unusable. We need to force legislators to hand over the keys.
Of course, I’ve presented a very abstract argument. Much of the talk surrounding issues such as immigration and education policy deals in these sorts of buzzwords. It’s easy to create a split between Republicans and Democrats when we’re talking about the hypothetical undocumented immigrant applying for college. It’s much harder to have a friend or classmate that you’ve known for years struggle to make the best of his situation.
It astounds me how xenophobic the debates about DREAM Act/DACA legislation get as a result of all this abstraction. As many have noted before, the idea that helping immigrants takes away “American” jobs suggests that immigrants aren’t American. It’s dangerous to establish this type of mindset. I’m an immigrant myself, and I recently became a citizen. When I was turning in my paperwork, an elderly couple walked by and spoke pointedly about how immigrants were “taking over the country.” Obviously, the attitude of one rude couple isn’t enough to establish that America is anti-immigrant, but it’s certainly not an encouraging sign.
This bill doesn’t enable criminals to break the law or facilitate some destruction of the American way of life. It allows children who spent their whole lives in this country to get a college degree — almost a necessity these days. Can anyone really fault children for the actions of their parents? Would it not be entirely cruel to force children out of a country they grew up in?
If we’re committed to change, we need to actually follow through with our ideas. SB 398 follows in the footsteps of California, Minnesota, New Mexico, Washington and Texas in giving undocumented students access to state financial aid. Not every bill should be an ideological fight between the left and the right. Sometimes the answer’s as obvious as helping students go to college.
Shreyas Tirumala is a freshman in Trumbull College and a member of the Yale College Democrats. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.