NORTH LITTLE ROCK Denying illegal immigrants the chance to pay only in-state tuition at Arkansas colleges and universities is a matter of law, not of personal choice or opinion, Gov. Mike Beebe said Monday.
Beebe, speaking after a Memorial Day event, said he and his office knew nothing about the state's two largest universities quietly offering the rates to possible illegal immigrants. The director of the Arkansas Department of Higher Education sent a letter to all the state's two-year and four-year schools last week banning the practice after a story by The Associated Press.
"If you believe in the law and if you put your hand on the Bible and swear to uphold the constitution and the laws, then it either means something to you or it doesn't," Beebe told the AP. "If that's the law, it's the law."
Beebe acknowledged it was "not easy" to deny a cheaper college education to anyone, including illegal immigrants. However, the governor said a legal opinion he signed while he served as the state's attorney general in 2005 clearly showed giving illegal immigrants in-state tuition likely would violate the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.
But nine other states have laws allowing for the practice, while many others look the other way as their schools offer in-state tuition rates. A newly elected member of the state Senate says she may run a similar bill during next year's legislative session.
The opinion "was done not by me but by our very expert opinions staff," Beebe said. "The attorney general's opinion staff is known for their very honest and objective analysis of the law."
Arkansas is home to one of the nation's fastest growing Hispanic communities, with U.S. Census Bureau estimates putting the population at more than 150,000 people. Other studies have concluded that about half of the state's immigrant population lives in the country illegally.
Both the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville and the University of Central Arkansas in Conway had offered students in-state tuition rates even if they didn't list a Social Security number in their applications. Both schools now say they'll change their application process to require proof of citizenship.
Questions about the schools' application process came after Beebe issued a statement saying he opposed a ballot measure that would limit public services to illegal immigrants if passed. Beebe had said the measure only duplicated laws already on the books, though the measure also would force all those older than 13 seeking state benefits or services to sign an affidavit promising they were legal U.S. residents.
"One of the things the ballot title proposed is doing that," Beebe said. "One of the things I said was that it's already the law and it still is the law. It's just a matter of enforcement."