Antonio Contreras choked up as he spoke of his two college-bound sons, Javier and Jose, who are undocumented students, during the public commentary section.
“I understand that is the rules or policies of the University of Michigan … (but) same as me you also have kids and I know you wish the best for them,” Contreras said.
Contreras came from Mexico 18 years ago looking for a better future for his family but with his low-income — he only graduated from middle school in Mexico — paying out-of-state tuition was impossible.
“(My sons) have what it takes to become professionals but sometimes it is impossible for them to achieve this thing,” he said. “They consider themselves Wolverines.”
The pathway for Contreras’ sons, who were both accepted to the University, to attend got slightly easier as the University’s Board of Regents approved a changeon Thursday to the residency guidelines, providing in-state tuition for both undocumented students and military veterans.
Regents Andrew Richner (R– Grosse Pointe Park) and Andrea Fischer Newman (R– Ann Arbor) both cast dissenting votes, citing unanswered questions surrounding the policy and its potential legal implications.
These simplified residency guidelines will provide in-state residency to those who are Michigan residents, served in the U.S. military or attended three years of middle school and two years of high school in Michigan.
The policy will take effect in January 2014. Undocumented students who graduated high school and applied to the University within 28 months of graduation will qualify for in-state tuition.
But for 29,000 undocumented students currently living in Michigan, federal financial aid — which provides grants and loans with low interest rates — is still unavailable, which complicates the process of paying for a University education.
Regent Mark Bernstein (D–Ann Arbor) said only a century earlier his family would have been considered undocumented immigrants, and that access to higher education has “always been a ladder of opportunity” to attaining the American dream.
“There are very few moments when strands of history weave together, and for me, today is one of those extraordinary moments,” Bernstein said.
Bernstein said he commended the Coalition for Tuition Equality on their hard work. The group, which was founded in the fall of 2011, has continued to advocate for tuition equality through numerous protests, and several of its members served on a task force with the administration to develop these new residency guidelines.
“I think they have just done such an impressive and distinguished job, and they have done it with dignity combined with passion,” Bernstein said.
Engineering student Joshua Simister, president of the University’s chapter of Student Veterans of America, said after all the sacrifices made by veterans in Iraq and Afghanistan, they deserved to not have to go through the hurdle of proving their residency to receive in-state tuition.
“(That policy was) disappointing to a lot of veterans and it means a lot to us that this policy is being reviewed,” Simister said.
Simister said the next generation of political leaders could come from those who served in the armed forces and would like those leaders to come “with the Michigan difference.”
In an interview after the meeting, Newman said she did not support the measure because it she did not feel it was within the jurisdiction of the University to make immigration policy.
“(I have questions) about whether this is appropriate under federal law and believe this type of national issue should be resolved at the federal level,” Newman said. “Although I am supportive of the expansion of in-state tuition for veterans who have served our nation.”
Bernstein said in an interview after the meeting that he was satisfied with the policy passed and that this was the first step to reducing barriers for undocumented students.
“There is a lot of work to be done but this was a step to be taken before any others occur,” Bernstein said.
While a form of tuition equality has passed at the University level, other higher education institutions across the state have yet to extend in-state tuition to undocumented students.
In April, Rep. Jeff Irwin (D-Ann Arbor) introduced a bill in the Michigan state legislature that would introduce tuition equality across the state. However, Irwin said he might expect a vote to play out along party lines, as in this afternoon’s decision where both Republicans provided the only dissent.
While Richner and Fischer Newman cited concerns regarding the legality of the Regent’s action, Irwin said the Regents acted within the University’s autonomous status as granted by the state constitution.
As an elected board, Irwin said the Regents have full jurisdiction in making the decision. Still, Irwin hasn’t ruled out the possibility of a court challenge against the new guidelines. But even with potential obstacles, Irwin predicts the leadership of most Michigan colleges will look at the University’s decision and arrive at the same conclusion.
Though Irwin said he lauded the University administration’s efforts in thoughtfully considering the issue, policymakers must still work towards more widespread policies at a state and federal level.
LSA sophomore Dan Morales, spokesperson for CTE, said he was happy a measure was passed, but that it wasn’t as inclusive as he would have liked, citing the lack of a promise for financial support for undocumented students and the strict guidelines on having to attend to both a Michigan high school and middle school.
“We want to make sure the University will meet the full need of undocumented students as well,” he said.
Morales added that one avenue to achieving this would be through establishing a scholarship in the upcoming capital campaign.
In regards to possible legal challenges to the policy, Morales said he was certain the University would stand behind its policy.
“There are some legal hurdles … but I am confident that the University will go up to bat on this issue as they have on previous issues like affirmative action,” Morales said.
He said CTE would continue in the fall to work with the administrators to expand access to higher education.
“In-state tuition is only one step to creating truly equal access to higher education for these students.”
Daily Staff Reporter Sam Gringlas contributed reporting