Coursing through social media and other venues of public conversation comes the phrase “that’s how you got Trump,” most often used to criticize the elites, insiders, politicos and members of the media who still seem unaware of their role in contributing to the disaffection and despair of the Americans who voted for him. Only mostly white, only mostly rural, and only mostly male, the Trump bloc has a populist’s impatience with nuance and a reactionary hostility to the accepted social norms that defined them as second-class Americans. The recent decision by a Fulton County Superior Court Judge to allow children of illegal immigrants to attend Georgia colleges at tuition rates formerly reserved for American-born Georgia residents, and the reaction to it, is a perfect example of how we got Trump.
Judge Gail Tusan’s legal reasoning is fairly straightforward. Georgia’s Board of Regents gives students from Georgia in-state tuition rates –about a third the rate of what students from North Carolina, Tennessee or Alabama would pay to attend a Georgia college. A 2008 law (and Board of Regents Policy) limits that financial advantage to students who are “legally in this state.” Until Friday, that phrase didn’t include illegal immigrants who were brought here as children, and then included in the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. The judge found that since the federal government has deferred deportation hearings, the students are “legally in this state,” and therefore eligible for in-state tuition. Judge Tusan’s ruling means the federal definition of “lawful presence” supersedes any state law or University System of Georgia policy, and while the DACA kids aren’t citizens, USG will charge them tuition rates as if they were.
As a descriptor of the issues and emotions that drove 2016, the decision couldn’t be more apt. Tuition has increased by obscene percentages, and college is still out of reach for many, despite (or because of) efforts to make it more affordable through grants, low-interest student loans, and the HOPE scholarship. A college degree is still the best chance for most Americans to get ahead, and Trump voters understand instinctively that college admission is a zero-sum game –every slot filled by the child of an illegal immigrant (or anyone else) is one fewer slot available for their own child. Tolerating illegal immigrants is one thing, but sacrificing your kids’ future for theirs is unacceptable.
On his facebook page, State Senator Josh McKoon posted a question: “A Judge in Fulton County just required Georgia Colleges & Universities to offer taxpayer subsidized in state tuition to illegal aliens. Should the Georgia Legislature act to reverse this judge’s decision?” Before trying to unpack the deliberately loaded rhetoric from that question, it’s worth seeing the hundreds of reactions, replies and comments, which range from thoughtful frustration to spittle-flecked, all-caps rage. Dismissing this anger as only racism or xenophobia is lazy and inaccurate. There’s a reactionary tone to the debate, but also a sense of righteousness, of standing up to a bully. Trump voters aren’t mad at the immigrants per se, but they are furious beyond reason with a federal system that enables illegal immigration and appears to give them a leg up at the expense of American citizens.
Legislative action on the tuition issue will be forthcoming –it’s political catnip. The media coverage and public debate, if honest, will focus on the hard question of why we’re giving discounted tuition to anyone, rather than the facile “xenophobe vs. usurper” name calling contests of the past. Those contests don’t merely prevent empathy and solutions, they’re how you get Trump.