Thousands of immigrant students in Illinois will be able to attend college thanks to new legislation that grants them in-state tuition rates. The bill was passed this month by the Illinois General Assembly and then signed into law by Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D).

Illinois is the seventh state to pass legislation allowing undocumented immigrant students to attend state colleges and pay the in-state tuition rate instead of the much higher out-of-state tuition rate. For undocumented students in the University of Illinois system, the law could mean annual savings of up to $4,000, a make-or-break amount for many low-income immigrant students who want to attend college.

The main beneficiaries of the new law are young people who were born in another country, brought to the U.S. as small children, and who have attended Illinois public or private schools all their lives. In some cases, such students only speak English and do not even know that they are undocumented until their parents break the news to them that they don’t have “papers” and that they will have to abandon their cherished college dreams.

The legislation mandates that all state universities admit all graduates of Illinois high schools without discriminating on the basis of their immigration status. Previously a few institutions had instituted such a policy on their own, but the entire state university system is now required to give the in-state rate to all undocumented students who otherwise qualify for admission. According to the Illinois Coalition For Immigrant and Refugee Rights, an estimated 1,000 students will directly benefit.

Unfortunately, the law doesn’t help adult undocumented students who graduated from high school in their countries of origin.

The legislation, called HB-60, zoomed through the legislature in spite of the fact that a vehement campaign in opposition to the measure was mounted by anti-immigration organizations. The Chicago Tribune and many other media outlets argued against the legislation, claiming that it would amount to rewarding violations of U.S. immigration law. Others argued that Illinois could ill afford to give the immigrant students a tuition break when college budgets are being slashed. On the other hand, many labor, community and religious organizations and leaders, including Cardinal Francis George, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Chicago, pointed out that undocumented immigrant already pay the taxes which support these educational institutions, and should not be discriminated against in terms of access.

Gov. Blagojevich and the Democratic majorities in the Illinois House and Senate were elected with the strong support of organized labor and the Latino and African American communities, and political observers consider the ease with which HB-60 passed to be part of the response to that support.

Immigrants’ rights groups are now pressing for legislation to allow immigrants to get Illinois drivers’ licenses without having to present a U.S. Social Security card.

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