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Thursday, Jul 24, 2014
Tom Jackson

Jackson: Immigration policy would head off brain drain

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Policymaking by anecdote may not be the worst way to accomplish the public’s business, but it has to be in the bottom three, and I have no idea what the other two are. So it is through a lens of skepticism that we should view the tale of would-be brain scientist Mariana Castro.

Castro, a native of Peru who entered the United States with her parents illegally when she was 10, applied herself to the opportunity mandated by federal law — public schools must accept youngsters whatever their residency status — and now has been accepted into the University of Florida’s top-notch neurobiological science program.

Alas, under current law, UF must consider Castro an out-of-state student, putting an annual $28,548 sticker on her education, more than four times that of qualifying Florida residents. For all Castro’s smarts, youthful achievement and resourcefulness, the price could be a deal-breaker.

Surrounded by others either in similar circumstances or pressing for change, Castro recently became, speaking in the state Senate chambers in Tallahassee, the poster student for reconsidering the applicable statutes.

Not that Florida’s high school graduating classes are teeming with future Amy Farrah Fowlers who also suffer shadowy undocumented/illegal status. They don’t call acceptance into the neurobiological science track coveted for nothing.

Even so, there’s an attractive argument for providing easier access for these kids to Florida’s public universities and community colleges, and as his farewell tour of the Legislature cranks up, state House Speaker Will Weatherford, the Wesley Chapel Republican, is already making it, even if it seems he is tacking against the stiff breeze of his party’s conventional wisdom.

In an editorial that appeared in another Tampa-area newspaper, Weatherford declared he’ll “champion a bill that will allow all of Florida’s children to pay in-state tuition if they’re academically qualified and have attended a Florida high school.” This isn’t just empathy talking, although Weatherford concedes a “moral dimension that can’t be ignored.”

“It’s a fundamental element of our American character,” he wrote, “that we don’t punish children for mistakes made by their parents.”

While Washington remains at loggerheads over what to do about the entirety of the U.S. immigration system and congressional Republicans ease out onto fragile ice that could fracture a promising 2014 election season, state legislatures are increasingly concluding they must act on behalf of those blameless youngsters left in the lurch. Seventeen states now provide in-state tuition rates under the conditions Weatherford described above, and others are lining up, all for reasons more about logic than moral imperative.

This isn’t about having a heart, the reason Gov. Rick Perry gave for extending in-state tuition rates to undocumented Texans (and Weatherford is advised to remember that if he’s ever onstage with a half-dozen others seeking the GOP nomination for president). Hearts are sloppy thinkers.

Inevitably, discussion about immigration reform gets around to “brain drain,” that stultifying phenomenon that sends bright foreign nationals, stoked with U.S. training and education, back home the moment they graduate from our best universities, lest they elbow native-born Americans aside in the competition for jobs.

But there’s another brain-drain going on, and the change Weatherford supports would change that. A 2010 study put the number of foreign-born children of illegal immigrants in Florida schools at more than 60,000, costing the state about $700 million a year. Can’t do anything about it. Federal law says school-age youngsters are welcome to an education, whatever their residency status.

After 13 years and more than $100,000, Weatherford figures it’s dumb and fiscally wasteful — neither condition prized by conservatives — to then deny high school graduates additional in-state opportunities simply over residency status they were powerless to influence.

This isn’t policymaking by anecdote. It’s seizing opportunity. It’s stretching Florida’s precious education dollars. It’s maximizing our homegrown talent.

And for those reasons alone, it’s the smart course of action.

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