State Politics

Emails forecast push to ban so-called Dreamers from Idaho Opportunity Scholarship

Emails between the Idaho Freedom Foundation and Idaho Republicans reveal that a push might be made in the 2020 legislative session to ban DACA students from the Opportunity Scholarship, which provides up to $3,500 to eligible Idahoans pursuing an undergraduate degree at an in-state school.

In an email a month before Republicans published a letter criticizing Boise State’s diversity programs, IFF raised the alarm over several of the same inclusion and diversity initiatives. The possibility that DACA students — so-called Dreamers who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children — could receive the Idaho Opportunity Scholarship featured heavily in their concerns, according to emails obtained via a public records request and shared with the Idaho Statesman.

“BSU is going in an increasingly radical direction,” wrote Fred Birnbaum, Idaho Freedom Foundation vice president, in a June 6 email to representatives and senators on the House Education and Joint Finance-Appropriation Committees. “I have added the underlines below to the President’s newsletter. Please note that illegal alien students (DACA students) are being invited to apply for Opportunity Scholarships.”

Birnbaum was alluding to a monthly newsletter from then-Interim BSU President Martin Schimpf in June that featured several bulleted items, including one stating that the State Board of Education had invited DACA students to apply for the scholarships.

After Birnbaum’s email, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Winder, R-Boise, asked the Idaho Attorney General’s Office to clarify whether DACA recipients met the Idaho Opportunity Scholarship’s eligibility and residency requirements.

“My read is that it likely would require legislative action based on the definitions of ‘resident’ for tuition purposes — and perhaps Board action as well,” Winder emailed Birnbaum on July 11. “It would additionally require Congressional Action based on the ‘lawful presence’ determination that may need to occur.”

Winder said he had no plans to raise the issue in the 2020 legislative session but said he couldn’t speak for other lawmakers. He reached out to the attorney general for clarification because some lawmakers were not aware that immigrants classified under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program could be eligible for the scholarship, he told the Statesman.

“I haven’t heard any real push on our side to try and do something about it,” Winder said. “I don’t think the issue will go away. I think it’s something that will be discussed during the session.”

In fact, Birnbaum told the Statesman on Tuesday that the Idaho Freedom Foundation would support a change blocking DACA recipients from the scholarship, citing the 1,780 students placed on the waiting list in fiscal year 2018 because of insufficient funds.

“We believe that it is an important public policy issue to prioritize Idahoans who are U.S. citizens to receive these limited opportunity scholarship dollars,” Birnbaum said.

Assistant Attorney General Brian Kane replied to Winder’s request with several Idaho statutes delineating eligibility and residency requirements in Idaho code, but did not directly say whether DACA recipients qualified as “lawfully present” Idaho residents. The Idaho Attorney General’s Office declined to comment when the Statesman asked for clarification.

“The basis for the quoted statement from Interim BSU President Schimpf is unclear,” Kane wrote to Winder on July 11. “The Board of Education has not issued an invitation to DACA students to apply for the Opportunity Scholarship.”

The Idaho Opportunity Scholarship was created during former Gov. Butch Otter’s tenure to give Idahoans from low-income backgrounds greater access to higher education in Idaho. The scholarship is awarded on both need and merit, with students needing at least a 2.7 GPA to qualify. Up to 20 percent of the funds are available for adult learners. More than 4,000 students applied for the scholarship in 2018.

DACA students at Idaho schools

Earlier this month, 28 Idaho Republicans signed a letter asking new Boise State University President Marlene Tromp to abandon several of the university’s diversity programs and inclusion initiatives. Encouraging DACA recipients to apply for the Idaho Opportunity Scholarship and attend Boise State was one of the programs called out in the July 9 letter, penned by Rep. Barbara Ehardt, R-Idaho Falls.

The Obama-era program extends temporary protection from deportation to immigrants who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children. DACA recipients are granted temporary protection from deportation and a work permit, and are allowed to apply for a Social Security number. DACA does not provide a pathway to legal permanent residence.

An estimated 3,000 DACA recipients live in Idaho, but there’s no available data to determine how many of those are enrolled in Idaho’s school system or applying to state colleges.

Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden, along with eight other attorneys general, threatened to sue the Trump administration in 2017 if it didn’t overturn the DACA program. Otter also signed the letter — the only governor to do so. But DACA is still in place amid ongoing federal litigation.

Mike Keckler, spokesman for the Idaho State Board of Education, said students applying to the Idaho Opportunity Scholarship must have graduated from an Idaho high school, be a state resident and be in the country legally. The Idaho State Board of Education is not responsible for verifying the residency status of applicants, Keckler said.

“Those are the requirements set forth in statute,” Keckler said. “If they’ve checked those boxes, it’s ultimately up to the institution to determine residency.

Boise State spokesman Greg Hahn said the school believes that DACA students are eligible for the scholarships, as Schimpf stated in his June letter.

“Since they have applied for and received deferred action on any immigration decisions, they are in the state legally, and that is the requirement in state law,” Hahn wrote in an email to the Statesman.

Margie Gonzalez, executive director of the Idaho Commission on Hispanic Affairs, said any attempt to ban DACA students from scholarship programs would be “sending a message nationally.” If they do win the Opportunity Scholarship, Gonzalez said, students’ DACA status shouldn’t be held against them.

“It’s not the children’s fault that their parents came to the U.S., for whatever reason they came,” Gonzalez said. “They came to the U.S. to follow their dreams. It’s hard for me to accept we aren’t going to treat them equally.”

Investigative reporter Nicole Foy covers Latinos, agriculture and government accountability issues. She graduated from Biola University and previously worked for the Idaho Press and the Orange County Register. Her Hispanic affairs beat reporting won first place in the 2018 Associated Press regional awards. Ella habla español.
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