Claudia doesn't know Mexico's national anthem. She grew up saying the U.S. Pledge of Allegiance.

She didn't know she was undocumented until her parents had to explain to her why she couldn't get on an airplane, as her friends could.

"I thought it was the end of the world," said the University of Utah student, who hasn't lived in Mexico since she was 6 years old.

Claudia is now studying engineering at the U. while a debate rages at the Utah Legislature over whether undocumented students like her should have to pay out-of-state tuition rates to get a college degree.

Higher-education leaders fear a repeal of in-state tuition for undocumented students will not only shut university doors in the future to students such as Claudia, but to U.S.-citizen, refugee and legal-immigrant minority students throughout the state.

Although a repeal would only affect a few hundred undocumented students and cost about $200,000 in lost tuition dollars, education leaders say that's nothing compared to the price of sending a negative message to minority students.

"It may send a message to all minority students that the public higher-education system is not the most welcoming. It creates an atmosphere where students who are Hispanic or of other ethnic status become — at best, resentful — and at worst, fearful," said David Doty, assistant commissioner of higher education in Utah.

Bad timing

HB224 would repeal a 2002 law that allows undocumented students to pay in-state tuition if they have attended a Utah high school for at least three years and graduated, or the equivalent. It would grandfather in current students but bar future undocumented students. The measure has cleared a House committee and is likely to see floor debate this week.

The repeal's proponents say the waiver for undocumented students isn't fair to those on student visas or out-of-state students who must pay the higher rate. They add that undocumented students can't work legally after they graduate.

While Utah's attorney general says the law is sound, an out-of-state attorney, Kris Kobach, who is involved in pending litigation over similar laws in other states, disagrees.

"You have Utah rewarding someone who violates federal law while disadvantaging an alien who follows federal law," Kobach recently told a House committee. "It's creating an incentive to break federal law."

Rep. Glenn Donnelson, R-North Ogden, is attempting to repeal the law for the fourth time. He said he's hopeful for a federal solution, but until that happens the state is only sending false hope to students who will find themselves with degrees but unemployable.

But Doty said the repeal's negative message couldn't come at a worse time, with the state facing dipping university enrollments in the next 10 years unless it can tap into the growing minority population that historically has lower levels of college attendance.

"We want to keep sending the message of hope and opportunity, not of despair and discouragement, which I think a repeal of this bill may send," Doty said.

Requiring undocumented students to pay out-of-state tuition — nearly three times as much as in-state rates — could make those minority groups feel like Utah "is just not a place where the doors are open," he said.

Michael Young, president of the University of Utah, called a repeal of the in-state tuition allowance a "genuine tragedy" for the state that would send a clear message to all minority students that the "state doesn't want us in college."

In addition, Young added, the students don't cost the state any extra money because university funding is not based on enrollment growth. Instead, the state will lose money by missing an opportunity to educate a growing population of undocumented students, he said.

"The Legislature isn't going to persuade these kids to go back to Mexico. They're here. The question is, are they going to be college educated or not?" he said. "There are severe consequences of not sending them to college and not giving them the hope of going to college."

A double standard

There are students who think the law allowing undocumented students to pay in-state tuition is unfair. Cory Seegmiller, president of the Freedom Society at Salt Lake Community College, calls it "a slap in the face to all the people who have done it the right way."

Alex Bowles, 21, pays out-of-state tuition after transferring to the U. from the University of Akron in Ohio.

"There are so many people who have to go through all the red tape in the system," he said. He is going through the process of eventually establishing residency, such as getting a Utah driver's license. While his tuition here is about the same as it was in Ohio, he says he pays his own way through a retail job and student loans. He's also vice president of a fledgling chapter of Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity.

"There's lots of people that even come ... for school visas and everything to get here," he said. "People who have just come undocumented into the state, and just because they establish residency can get in-state tuition, it seems like there's a process being done around."

Roughly 60 undocument- ed students attend the U., with the highest number of students — about 103 as of fall 2006 — attending Salt Lake Community College.

Requiring undocumented students to pay the out-of-state rate at SLCC would likely mean most of those students would have to drop out, said Deneece Huftalin, vice president for student services. Currently, in-state students pay $1,201 for a full-time semester, while out-of-state students pay $3,759.

Alex Segura, who heads the Utah Minuteman Project, said he sees it another way. "It discriminates against American citizens who want in-state tuition," he says, to allow undocumented immigrants to pay the in-state rate.

However, denying students that access sets a double standard in the state, Doty said, by encouraging undocumented students to succeed in public education, where federal law allows them access, no questions asked, but then telling them they are "persona non grata" once they graduate from high school.

"It's heartbreaking to send that kind of a message to a student who has worked hard," he said.

Can they work?

But during a recent House committee hearing on the bill, lawmakers took heed of arguments favoring the repeal and voted to advance HB224 to the House floor. A key argument was that in order to work after graduation, the undocumented immigrants wouldn't be able to work, unless they commit identity theft.

"Illegal immigrants cannot work, period," said Rep. Glenn Donnelson, R-North Ogden, sponsor of the proposed repeal. He pointed to a Washington Post article about Texas graduates, including a petroleum engineer, whose undocumented status has barred them from finding work.

Doty, however, said there are many ways a student could become a legal citizen while in Utah earning a degree. Most students' hopes lie in a change in federal law that would allow them to stay in Utah and contribute to the economy legally.

"In the worst-case scenario, let's say they still are undocumented when they graduate from college. We would hope that they would still be a better, more responsible adult with a college education," Doty said. "Hopefully you're a better employee, parent and less of a drain on social services."


E-mail: estewart@desnews.com; dbulkeley@desnews.com