Kathy Sykes Credit: Gil Ford Photography

A national debate over immigration policies is playing out in Mississippi in the form of competing legislative proposals that seek to address the state’s undocumented student population.

One, House Bill 212, would make undocumented students at community colleges eligible for in-state tuition and state financial aid.  This bill, sponsored by Rep. Kathy Sykes D-Jackson, is not new. For years, other legislators, including Sykes, have proposed the same measure and passage has been unsuccessful.

“This is a process we have been working on for several years. We hope to see the benefits in the long run of how such a bill can help our state,” Sykes said.

Sykes says she hopes to continue increasing awareness of immigrant status issues and the opportunities such a bill could offer.

Currently, in-state tuition is offered to undocumented students at each of the state’s public four-year institutions if they meet certain criteria that classifies them as a resident. According to the Mississippi Community College Board, admission standards and tuition rates are handled separately on each community college campus.

Currently, Mississippi tuition rates are determined by a student’s residency—not citizenship—nor does citizen status have bearing on admission. However, another legislative proposal could change that.

“The Mississippi First Higher Education Act,” or HB 600, would bar colleges and universities from practicing affirmative action or becoming a “sanctuary” for undocumented students. The bill would also deny undocumented students admission into any post-secondary school in the state and make them ineligible for grants, scholarships or financial aid.

Rep. Robert Foster, R-Hernando, who sponsored the bill said Mississippi taxpayers should not have to pay for the education of undocumented immigrants.

“How can we know how many illegal immigrants are receiving an education at facilities paid for with our tax dollars if we are not checking for legal status before admitting them?,” Foster told Mississippi Today. “Why would Ole Miss want to make their campus a ‘sanctuary campus’ if they are not hiding illegal immigrants on their campus?”

Bill Chandler, executive director of the Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance, which opposes such policies, explains that in most situations, parents bring their children into the U.S. Even after a student has spent their entire educational career in Mississippi schools, those from low-income families who want to go to college are stymied by the costs and their resident status.

Even though some private colleges help prospective undocumented students find outside funds for tuition, Chandler said very few undocumented students attend private college. Unlike resident students, these students don’t have access to institutional scholarship funds or federal dollars. Private schools are also much more expensive than community colleges.

The state college board keeps track of student residency and citizenship but does not track undocumented students attending the four-year universities.

Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves has said eliminating so-called sanctuary cities and college campus is among his legislative priorities this session.

Sykes said undocumented students from Mississippi should be able to afford college in their home state.

“We want to see as many young people educated as possible. This state offers quality education. Unfortunately, for some it is unattainable,” Sykes said.

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Ashley F. G. Norwood, a native of Jackson, earned a bachelor's degree in English from Jackson State University and a master’s degree from the Meek School of Journalism at the University of Mississippi. Norwood, who specializes in multimedia journalism, has been recognized nationally for her documentary film the fly in the buttermilk, which covers the history, perceptions and principles of black Greek-lettered organizations at the University of Mississippi.