Texas legislators are seeking to deny work-study aid to immigrants attending public college under a temporary residency permit, a move that starkly contrasts with a policy enacted 16 years ago that positioned the state as the nation's most welcoming place for foreign-born students.
Under the proposal, which is on the verge of clearing the Texas Legislature, only individuals eligible for federal financial aid would qualify for the state's off-campus, work-study program.
That group includes U.S. citizens, permanent residents and refugees. It doesn't include students who came into the country illegally as children and have a work visa allowing them to stay longer, or immigrants granted permission to stay in the country because they were crime victims.
It wasn't immediately clear how many Texas college students would be denied services if the measure is enacted.
Sen. Charles Schwertner, who sponsored the amendment, would not respond to requests for comment on the floor of the state Senate. At a hearing earlier this month he said the measure simply served to "ensure that students receiving state-subsidized employment are legally eligible to work in the United States."
"This amendment simply requires that the student qualify for federal financial aid," he said. "You must have a Social Security card or be a U.S. citizen."
But immigrant advocates said that, to their knowledge, this is the first bill denying work-study aid to foreign-born students who are protected from deportation because of a temporary visa. The young people who benefit are called `dreamers' because the program mimics versions of the so-called DREAM Act, which would have provided legal status for young immigrants but was never passed by Congress.
"We were surprised to see this amendment," said Nicholas Espiritu, a Los Angeles-based staff attorney for the National Immigration Law Center, who said his organization was not aware of another similar law.
Immigration attorney Jacqueline Watson, the former Texas chairwoman of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, explained that "the state rules for financial aid are historically broader and have broader eligibility requirements than federal financial aid."
"As long as you're authorized to work you could participate in work study, so a DACA recipient could qualify," said Watson, referring to Obama administration's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which is the federal program through which the immigrants receive temporary legal status.
The new restriction was tacked on as an amendment to a non-contentious bill that cleared both chambers of the Legislature but awaits a final version.
Watson said enacting the measure would represent an unfortunate change for Texas. It was the first to offer in-state college tuition for some immigrants in the country illegally back in 2001, under the Texas Dream Act, which benefited about 30,000 students in 2015, according to information compiled by the Center for Public Policy Priorities.
"This is a setback from how we've been traditionally treating students," Watson said. "As long as they were Texas students we wanted to make sure they were educated."
Karla Perez, a Houston DACA recipient currently in law school, said the prohibition was one of many state "efforts to undermine DACA," including a Texas proposal in 2015 to remove in-state tuition for the students, similar to legislation filed this year.
"There are a lot of obstacles for DACA students," said Perez, 24, noting that many of the DACA recipients she knew in Texas had not even realized they could participate in the work study program in the past. "There's a lot of misinformation out there."
This session, the Legislature approved a law compelling local police to inquire about peoples' immigration status during routine interactions like traffic stops, and even threaten with jail time sheriffs and other law enforcement officials who refuse to comply. Opponents call it a "show your papers" law similar to one that sparked years of federal legal challenges in Arizona, but top Republicans say it will keep Texas safer.