While browsing Facebook at 3 a.m. last night—not an activity I recommend, especially when sleeping is the alternative—I came across an acquaintance from New York who had written the following words on Facebook:
Unbelievable ~ REALLY!!!
Below the expression of enraged astonishment was a link to this statement from Republican State Sen. John J. Flanagan, titled:
“Senate Democrats Betray Law-Abiding Taxpayers By Approving Free College Tuition For Illegal Immigrants
Now, if you’ve spent any time in the political sphere recently and aren’t very gullible like the commenters on that post (“OMG this really makes me very angry!”) or a seething grievance-minded right-winger, you’ve probably drawn a few conclusions. Such as:
1. It’s lousy for Sen. Flanagan to contrast undocumented immigrants (“illegal,” to him) with “law-abiding taxpayers,” as though the immigrants are a teeming mass of sinister criminals. Though in the age of Trump, this demonization is standard operating procedure for the GOP to such a degree that it’s hard to get too fired up.
2. Almost everything he says in the headline, from the idea of “betrayal” to the idea that college will now be universally free for every undocumented immigrant, is nonsense.
You would be correct, of course. Republicans have controlled the New York State Senate for a decade, but they lost their majority for the first time in the 2018 midterms, and now the legislature and governor’s mansion are all blue. That means the way has been paved for progressive reforms, and the latest is the aforementioned “Dream Act” (not to be confused with the national initiative to legalize Dreamers). Here’s what New York State’s version of the Dream Act actually accomplishes:
—Give 146,000 children of undocumented immigrants access to state financial aid. Previously, if these children—most of whom have been living in America since they were very young—wanted to go to college, they were legally prohibited from receiving any state aid. This despite the fact that they’re all part of the New York educational system for at least two years or graduated from a New York high school, and that immigrants make up a full 25 percent of of the New York State workforce.
—It allows their parents (and the kids themselves) to save money in the same 529 tuition savings accounts that everyone else can use.
—It establishes a commission whose role is to raise money from private sources—again, private sources—to establish scholarships for these children.
That’s really it. Far from “approving free college tuition for illegal immigrants,” this just gives undocumented children the same rights as every other child in New York state. It doesn’t allocate any “extra” money for them, beyond what a private individual or company wants to give, and really, it seems like a pretty important step to protect a very vulnerable group in our country and give them a chance for equal educational footing that will ultimately help the entire country. And in the process, it doesn’t hurt naturalized citizens one bit. The $27 million price tag is more than justified by the fact that undocumented immigrants pay roughly $150 million each year in state and local taxes. And it’s a drop in the ocean compared with the $1 billion spent on the state’s Tuition Assistance Program each year.
New York is preceded in this move by six other states (California, Texas, New Mexico, Washington, Oregon, Minnesota), and in order to believe that it’s actually wrong, you have to believe that the children of undocumented immigrants should be barred from educational opportunities available to children whose parents were born in this country. Three states do believe that, and have barred these children from accessing regular tuition rates, and Alabama and South Carolina have barred them from even attending public colleges.
Now, you tell me—of those two positions, which is the more compassionate, which is the more forward-looking, and which is ultimately going to benefit American society the most?
But Republicans in the state, still stinging from the midterm losses, are pursuing the strategy they know best—claiming that Democrats are benefiting “illegals” at the expense of “regular hard-working Americans.” It’s ugly, it’s cynical, and it’s designed to sow and spread division at exactly the wrong time. And as you see from the Facebook post I referenced above, it works—at least on some people.
Aid for children of undocumented immigrants isn’t the only controversial bill passed by the Senate since the changeover. There’s also the Reproductive Health Act, which solidifies the protections established in Roe v. Wade by removing abortion completely from the state’s criminal code. Practically, it eliminates the law that makes it a crime for a doctor to perform an abortion when a woman has passed the 24-week mark of her pregnancy if her life isn’t in danger. The real-life effect was that if a pregnancy was no longer viable—meaning the fetus will die—women were banned from having an abortion after the cut-off. That led to absurd and shattering situations where women with resources were forced to get the abortion out of state if they learned after 24 weeks, and ones who couldn’t were forced to deliver the nonviable child normally, only for the baby to die.
If you’re anti-choice, you will dislike this bill for the same reason that you dislike the legality of abortion in general. That’s a debate for a different time—the important thing to focus on here is the spread of misinformation. I no longer live in New York, but I heard from another Facebook friend who worried about the way it might permit late-term abortions when there was no concern for the mother’s or child’s health, and Republican responses focus on the idea that this will increase late-term abortions for ultimately superficial “mental” or “emotional” concerns, and also put women in danger by eliminating an act of intentional violence that leads to abortion from the criminal code (in reality, there are many ways to press charges in these extremely rare cases).
What their argument boils down to—and again, this is no surprise—is the demonization of women. The implication goes that there are hordes of pregnant women who will opt for third trimester abortions on flimsy or capricious grounds, which amplifies the idea in some minds that abortion is fundamentally an act of cruelty rather than necessity. The true reason for the law—both to end a grave injustice in the state’s abortion code and to lay out protections in the case of the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade, and in the face of many other states restricting abortion access to grave degrees—are glossed over in favor of an ugly fantasy.
And so it will follow for all progressive legislation in this country. The battle is not just in getting the bill passed and codifying critical protections at a time when the federal government is doing its damndest to erode them, but in defeating the bad faith reaction from Republicans who will stoop to any distortion to win back their waning influence.