Monday, May 24, 2004

Fabricating a Statistic in the Immigration Debate

Fabricating a Statistic in the Immigration Debate

May 24, 2004 E-mail story Print

Michael Hiltzik:
Golden State
Fabricating a Statistic in the Immigration Debate

Michael Hiltzik
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Illegal immigration is one of California's most contentious and frustrating public policy issues, but it does have one positive feature: It continues to be an exciting laboratory for experimentation in the new math.

The latest example comes courtesy of state Sen. Tom McClintock (R-Thousand Oaks), who readers may remember from his having guarded the conservative flank as a candidate in last year's recall election. A few weeks ago Sen. McClintock wrote an editorial column built around the following irony:

"This year, nearly 7,500 qualified California residents — who would otherwise be entering California state universities as incoming freshmen — are likely to be turned away for lack of funds. Meanwhile, approximately 7,500 illegal immigrants will receive heavily subsidized university educations at a cost of between $45 million and $65 million annually at those same universities."

McClintock had introduced a bill to eliminate this so-called subsidy. As it happens, the bill died in the Senate Education Committee. But lest anyone think I am beating a dead horse, in this state the issue of illegal immigration is a horse with a million lives.

To date, Sen. McClintock's essay has been published by the San Diego Union-Tribune, the Daily News of Los Angeles and the Oakland Tribune, among other newspapers around the state. None of them, however, apparently undertook to authenticate the senator's claims before retailing them to their readers.

Let's start with the assertion that 7,500 illegal immigrants are receiving subsidized tuition at the state universities. McClintock is referring to so-called AB 540 exemptions, enacted by the Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Gray Davis in 2001. The exemptions apply to students who have attended three years of high school in California, graduated from a California school and gained admission to one of the state universities or colleges.

Under AB 540, these students are charged the resident tuition and fees even if their families do not qualify as residents — because, say, they've moved out of state. (This covers children of migrant workers, among others.) Illegal immigrants can receive the exemptions if they certify that they've applied for legal residency or will do so as soon as they are eligible.

University and college administrators could not provide more than rough conjecture about the number of students who would receive the exemption when AB 540 was making its way through the Legislature. In part this was because no one knew whether the law would bring out of the woodwork candidates who wouldn't even apply to the UC or Cal State systems if they had to pay the full nonresident freight.

In any event, the numbers floating around were in the hundreds, not thousands. Cal State thought it might see 500 exemptions, for instance, "but that was a guess," says the system's spokeswoman, Colleen Bentley-Adler. The prospects were so cloudy that legislative committee staffers didn't even bother to work up a fiscal impact estimate for the bill.

Now that we are in the second full year of the waiver program, the statistics haven't grown much firmer. The only institution with solid numbers is the University of California, which says it granted waivers to 719 students in the 2002-03 academic year. Of those, however, only 93 were "potentially undocumented students." The rest were permanent residents, lawful visa holders or U.S. citizens — presumably including U.S.-born offspring of illegal immigrants.

At Cal State, Bentley-Adler says the system has never collected waiver statistics from its constituent campuses. The reason may be that the difference between resident and nonresident tuition (about $7,836 a year) doesn't directly affect Cal State's budget; it's absorbed by the state treasury.

The California Community Colleges also say they don't collect AB 540 numbers centrally. But the system's outside estimate — and college

officials stress the term "outside" — is that the waiver is claimed today by no more than 1,500 students. (The difference between resident and nonresident tuition for a full-time community college student is about $3,800 a year.)

So where did Sen. McClintock's statistics come from?

Last week he told me that he thought they came from the Office of the Legislative Analyst, Sacramento's nonpartisan analytical body. But that office says it has never produced any such numbers. McClintock also says he's unsure whether his figure of 7,500 illegal immigrant students includes those at the community colleges; given that there are more than 1 million community college students, that's a lot of wiggle room.

This leaves the possibility that Sen. McClintock seized on the figure of 7,500 because it so handily matches the number of qualified UC applicants denied admission this year because of enrollment cutbacks. The implication, plainly, is that illegal immigrants have stolen opportunities that should go to citizens and law-abiding newcomers.

That's certainly the narrative line that grabs people's attention. "I find it appalling that the illegal immigrant population can get into our university system easier than can the children of people whether legal immigrants or born and bred in the United States," one exercised reader wrote the Daily News.

The trouble is that it's a fabrication.

To begin with, AB 540 doesn't give anyone, illegal immigrant or otherwise, preferential admission to a state university or college. Each has to qualify academically like anyone else. Moreover, McClintock's tally of 7,500 prospective university freshmen "turned away for lack of funds" doesn't cover both UC and Cal State — it refers to an option UC alone has given those students to spend two years at a community college in return for guaranteed enrollment as juniors. Suggesting they were turned away because their slots were taken by "7,500 illegal immigrants," especially when UC has reported granting waivers to no more than 93 "potentially undocumented" students, is slicing the baloney pretty thick.

The fundamental untruth in McClintock's column is the intimation that a subsidy to illegal immigrants helped cause the financial crunch in California higher education. In fact, there is a reason for the fiscal crisis at UC, Cal State and the community colleges, and Sen. McClintock is partially responsible: It's the refusal by the Legislature and governor to close the state's budget gap by levying enough taxes to pay for all the programs they like.

Here, as in most recent discussions of state finances, Sen. McClintock wants to cavort on both sides of the fence. Clearly he's in favor of admitting those 7,500 snubbed university freshmen to the campus of their choice, or he wouldn't make such a big stink about their plight. He just doesn't want to pay for them by adequately supporting the state universities with tax revenue. Instead, he chooses to lay another sin at the feet of illegal immigration.

Sen. McClintock told me his chief point was that resident tuition "should not be granted to people who are in this country in violation of our immigration laws," and that they shouldn't be granted a pass merely because they've stayed long enough to acquire a high school education. I'm sure McClintock is sincere in his position, and it's a legitimate topic of debate.

But by a bipartisan vote in 2001, the Legislature settled the issue on the side of granting more rights to undocumented immigrants, a trend that has continued.

If Sen. McClintock wishes to reopen the question, that's his right. He doesn't, though, have the right to manufacture a scandal or invent a statistic to do so.


Golden State appears every Monday and Thursday. You can reach Michael Hiltzik at and read his previous columns at


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