Christian Schneider

Author, Columnist

Taking a Left Turn on Immigration

Apparently, sparks flew at the Joint Committee on Finance budget hearing on Wednesday when UW-Whitewater student Matthew Guttmann and State Representative Josh Zepnick sparred over a budget provision that grants in-state tuition to certain undocumented immigrants in Wisconsin.   According to, the following exchange occurred:

Zepnick who authored legislation to allow the tuition break, sarcastically commended him for being in college because it is a place to learn.

“You need to finish it,” Zepnick said, pointing out that children of illegal immigrants born in the United States are citizens and it is their parents who are having trouble getting documentation.

“What you said is not factually correct,” Zepnick said, adding that less than half a percent of students would get the benefit.

Ironically, it is the condescending Zepnick who seemed to have his facts wrong.  While he tried to buttress his argument by pointing out that children born in America to illegal parents are already citizens, that’s really an irrelevant point.  His bill – and the budget – specifically grant the benefit to a “citizen of another country” – meaning, someone who has immigrated here either with their parents or on their own.

(UPDATE:  You can watch the Zepnick-Guttmann exchange here – but you have to skip ahead to the 3 hour, 1 minute, and 54 second mark.)

It seems clear that Zepnick was a jackass to this kid.  But here’s the thing…

I actually…

Kind of…

(Covering head)…

Agree with Zepnick.

It’s true.  Pursuant to certain qualifications, I think this benefit is warranted.  In December of 2007, I wrote this in response to a WPRI poll that said 76% of Wisconsin residents opposed allowing illegal immigrants to apply for drivers’ licenses, 86% opposed giving illegal immigrants in-state tuition, and 46% disapproved of “illegal immigrant children” attending public schools:

As you can see, there’s a big difference between what respondents thought about children and adult illegal immigrants. It appears that there’s a gap of people more willing to forgive illegal immigrant children than their parents. To them, it likely makes sense that children shouldn’t pay for the mistakes their parents make.

Yet these elementary school children will grow up and go to college. And many of them will be the same kids that the public feels strongly should not get in-state tuition. Presumably, that would mean they would have to pay out of state tuition or be denied entry into a state school altogether. In other words, their education would likely end at a high school degree.

In fact, elementary school students receive a much larger public subsidy than University of Wisconsin students. If the public was concerned about tax money being used to subsidize illegal immigrants, elementary school per-pupil spending should logically be the more difficult subsidy to stomach, considering per-pupil aid is so much greater.

Of course, the difficult question of why illegal immigrant children should be allowed to attend public elementary and high schools, but not colleges, is left up to the people who support the former but not the latter. It appears that 46% of people oppose any and all concession to illegal immigrants, not matter what the age – and another 10% side with the illegal immigrants on all issues. (I am assuming, of course, that there aren’t a lot of people who oppose elementary school subsidies but support taxpayer aid for college.) It would be interesting to listen to the rationale of the people in the middle – who may support one, but not the other – and why.

Most likely, respondents probably viewed illegal immigrants trying to attend the UW as trying to mooch off the system after they crossed the border. It’s unlikely that they understood that many of these kids are actually graduating from Wisconsin public schools.

I understand that people don’t want illegal immigrants to just be showing up and gaming the system, which is why I suggested mandating that the student had to be in a Wisconsin high school for four years to be eligible (the budget last session required one year of residency.)  It appears that this time around, in order to make the bill more palatable, the residency requirement was upped to three years.  It also requires that the student will have to at least file an application for U.S. residency.

So, to be clear – these kids are already going to the same high schools as our kids (for at least three years of high school).  They have the same teachers.  They play on the same sports teams.  They take the same tests, and get the same high school degree.  They are indistinct from any other high school students.  By the time an undocumented child makes it from first grade to graduating high school, taxpayers have already sunk over $100,000 into that child’s education, whether they realize it or not. To pull the plug on those children because of the actions of their parents would be unfair, and would nullify the investment taxpayers have already made in the child.

We should have strict immigration policies that keep people from entering our country illegally.  But people who think that the federal government is just going to start rounding up law-abiding undocumented families and deporting them anytime soon are living in a dream world.  (Criminals, on the other hand should be banished immediately.)

So while they’re here, our state would be better off giving these kids the chance to make our state better, rather than sentencing them to a second class existence.  It’s not their fault.

(Complaints can be sent to Representative Josh Zepnick.)


  1. Just a side note.
    They play on the same sports teams.
    Do you think that it’s fair that undocumented immigrants are eligible to play WIAA sanctioned sports while many choice and home schoolers aren’t? I’m on a mission here to make the whole field level, not just for some.

  2. I’m sure you are aware that Federal law would then require that ANY student from ANY State could also have ‘in-state’ tuition at UW schools, right?

  3. Debra Guenterberg

    April 9, 2009 at 12:16 pm


    The problem I have with allowing illegal aliens, those children of the illegal aliens who were brought over and not born here. ( I don’t believe they should be citizens if both parents are illegal aliens) is that while property taxes help pay for grade school, middle school, and high school, college is not. So legal American citizen parents have to include their household earnings, SSN, and tax returns when their children are applying for student loans and grants. What will the parental contribution be required of the illegal aliens who are living and working here illegally? what SSN number are the illegal parents and illegal college students going to use to apply for these loans to pay for in-state tuition? Let them go to our WI colleges and pay the higher tuition plus an extra fee since they are not even here legally. Their parents should of thought of the problems that would occur for their children when they came into our country illegally in the first place. So all the students who are going to WI colleges with the proper vista but pay out-of-state tuition should just live here illegally. WE do not owe anyone who has entered our country illegally anything. There is not enough money for American citizens to obtain student loans so who cares about the illegals? Let them be thank-ful that they can remain here and mow our lawns. It was good enough for their parents! Let them do the jobs that Americans won’t do….oh yeah, with the job market and unemployment we are willing to do those jobs.

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