One of the sharpest political debates erupting in statehouses this year -- and a key battle between progressive and anti-immigrant forces nationwide -- is over proposals to give the children of undocumented immigrants in-state tuition at state colleges and universities.

Based on measures already passed in eight states including California, New York and Texas, the legislation under consideration in some 20 states typically requires the kids to have lived in the state for several years, to have graduated from high school, and formally signal their intention to be naturalized as a U.S. citizen. In return, they receive in-state tuition -- up to a fifth of out-of-state costs -- and, in some cases, access to student aid and scholarships.

The bills have been unique in their ability to draw bi-partisan support, with Democratic and Republican advocates showing the economic benefits of educating children and bringing them into the economic mainstream. But opposition has been fierce; anti-immigration groups have whipped up hysteria over images of hordes of illegal kids flooding the campuses (even though the research shows that, on average, only .75% of the undocumented population in any state will likely take advantage of the new rules).

In Arkansas this spring, progressive leader Rep. Joyce Elliott -- with backing of Gov. Mike Huckabee -- led an emotional and successful campaign to pass such a measure in the House, winning 63-31, only to see it stall in the Senate last week once the anti-immigrant forces ramped up their campaign.

The issue is proving to be political dynamite in North Carolina as well. Despite a bi-partisan push from 31 members of the state House -- and support from popular ex-Gov. Jim Hunt -- legislation in the Tar Heel state has ignited high-pitched opposition from right-wing talk radio and groups like Americans for Legal Immigration, causing at least three House members to remove their sponsorship of the bill.

The reason policies like this have passed in eight states is because the economic benefit is undeniable.

Here's what they found in Texas, according to the National Conference on State Legislatures:
The Texas House Research Organization estimated that tuition and fees for resident undergraduates enrolled in 12 semester hours at the University of Texas was $1,484 for the spring 2001 semester vs. $4,064 for an out-of-state student. Legislation allowing in-state tuition would make higher education more affordable and accessible for illegal immigrant students who meet the proper residency and academic requirements. The report also indicated that not helping students' attend college results in much greater costs to the state and contributes to an uneducated workforce. In 1986, an estimated 86,000 students dropped out of Texas public schools costing the state $17.12 billion. By 1998, the number of dropouts increased to almost 1.2 million with the costs estimated at $319 billion.
Sounds like better education is something everyone could get behind. In a press conference unveiling North Carolina's legislation last week, conservative Republican Jeff Barnhart noted that the children of undocumented workers did not choose to live in North Carolina, but are here because their parents came for a job. Barnhart said "these students are committed to their education and I'm committed to help them get it."

The question is, why are so many legislators knuckling under pressure from the radical right and letting anti-immigrant hysteria cloud their better judgement?