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GOP Divide and Distract Ads 2018: In-State Tuition Edition

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In-state tuition for undocumented students is popular and makes sense. But Republicans candidates this year are attacking the program anyway

Accessing affordable higher education and mounting student debt are real issues for many voters in the 2018 midterm elections. However, many Republican ads are not proposing new solutions to address the problem — instead, they just blame at undocumented students. These blatantly anti-immigrant ads seek to turn voters away from Democrats by falsely characterizing them as giving special education benefits to Dreamers. This message is part of the divide and distract strategy that Donald Trump and Stephen Miller outlined and has been widely adopted by GOP. Their cynical political tactics seek to scapegoat immigrants in order to distract voters from Republicans’ unpopular policies.

Expanding education opportunities for students who are trying to better their lives and contribute to the country they call home makes both moral and economic sense. According to the NASPA Foundation, in-state tuition laws that charge undocumented students the same rate as their high-school peers (rather than treating them as out-of-state students) may increase state GDP and work to close the racial gap in high school graduation rates. These policies are a widely popular idea and have often received bipartisan support from state legislators. But those who are using the divide and distract ads seek to pit Americans against students of color over access to higher education. Here are some of the campaigns that are using the ugly, racist strategy this year.


Unsurprisingly, Kansas gubernatorial candidate Kris Kobach has made attacks on in-state tuition a central part of his campaign. In 2004, the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) — an anti-immigrant hate group and flagship organization of white nationalist John Tanton’s network — hired Kobach to go after the Kansas law that allowed some undocumented students the ability to access in-state tuition rates. Kobach lost that lawsuit and two others against similar laws that FAIR hired him to challenge in Nebraska and California.

Kobach has made repeated attempts to overturn the law over the last 14 years but the popular law has continued to enjoy bipartisan support. Nevertheless, Kobach ran a campaign ad claiming that raising tuition costs were caused by undocumented students accessing the reduced rates — a ridiculous notion when only 0.37 percent of all students enrolled in 2017 were undocumented. And Kobach himself later admitted the issue of tuition increases was a “much bigger issue than that” of in-state tuition for undocumented students.

That didn’t stop the Republican Governor’s association from running an ad against Kobach’s Democratic opponent, Laura Kelly, attacking her for “supporting illegal immigrants getting taxpayer funded in-state tuition.” On screen is an image of Kelly adjacent to another image of men climbing a fence with text that reads “taxpayer-funded benefit for illegal immigrants.”  


In Georgia, a high school student can apply for a HOPE scholarship that would cover most if not all the cost of attending college in Georgia. Undocumented students are currently unable to apply for the scholarship no matter their academic achievements. Undocumented students are outright banned from attending the state’s top three public universities and all Dreamers who attend college in the state must pay out-of-state or international tuition.

The fact that Georgia is one of the most hostile states to undocumented students did not stop the state’s Republican gubernatorial candidate and one of the worst anti-immigrant candidates in the 2018 midterms, Brian Kemp, from using Dreamers as a scare tactic against voters. Kemp ran an ad falsely claiming that the HOPE scholarship is under threat from undocumented students and his Democratic opponent, Stacy Abrams. “Stacy Abrams wants to give HOPE scholarships to illegal immigrants even if it bankrupts the system for everyone else,” Kemp said in his ad.  


In April 2018, the Arizona state Supreme Court ruled against some 2,000 Dreamers requesting the ability to access in-state tuition rates. The ruling followed a 2015 Arizona Board of Regents decision allowing students with DACA to access in-state rates. The 2018 decision is in line a with a 2006 law that bans in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants.  

The Republican Governors Association as picked up on the issue and has run two separate attack ads that criticizing the Democratic candidate, David Garcia, of supporting in-state tuition. One ad claims Garcia is “so liberal” he “wants to give illegal immigrants in-state tuition at Arizona’s universities” — despite the fact that, as mentioned, in-state tuition has generally enjoyed bipartisan support. In another, the announcer ominously warns that “Garcia even wants to give in-state tuition benefits to illegal immigrants.”

New York

Undocumented students have been able to access in-state tuition rates in New York since 2002. While several attempts to extend state financial aid grant applications to Dreamers have failed in the state legislature, undocumented immigrants that have DACA or TPS can apply for limited state financial aid. This year, attack ads have attempted to exaggerate the minimal access to resources provided and demonize a 16-year old law in order to drum up support for Republicans.

The America First Action super PAC has run an ad against New York’s 22nd Congressional District Democratic candidate, Anthony Brindisi, attacking him for supporting single-payer healthcare and “even worse…a law that would make it easier for illegal immigrants to go to college on the taxpayer’s dime.” They are also running Facebook ads with a similar message, saying “Brindisi supports using YOUR tax dollars to help illegal immigrants go to college.”

The New York State Senate Republican Campaign Committee has run similar ads on Facebook, in no less than seven races for the state senate. Their ad supporting Jeff Pravato reads “stop new entitlements (including free college tuition for illegal aliens).” Their ads against Jim Gaughran, Rachel May, James Skoufis, Jen Lunsford, and Jen Metzger all contain a similar message about tax dollars being used to support college tuition for undocumented immigrants. One of their ads shows a young woman in front of a computer with bold red text, “while our students are buried in debt” above an image of Gaughran with two thumbs up with text that reads, “Jim Gaughran wants to give illegal immigrants free college with your money.  And an ad supporting Cliff Crouch reads, “‘NO!’ to free college tuition for illegal immigrants.”


After barely winning the special election for Ohio’s 12th congressional district by less than one percentage point in August 2018, Troy Balderson is facing a rematch against Democrat Danny O’Conner this November. The district voted for Trump by 11 points in 2016, but Balderson is looking at another razor-thin race and has taken to the divide and distract strategy. He is running an ad that among other anti-immigrant attacks says that O’Conner supports “in-state tuition for illegals.” Not only does Balderson use offensive language, he ignores the fact that even if O’Connor wins the seat he will not be able to expand tuition access in the state.

Ohio’s Board of Regents issued an extremely limited rule in 2013 that allowed Dreamers with DACA to access in-state tuition rates. Ohio’s universities spoke out in favor of DACA after Trump attempted to end the program in September 2017. But Ohio does not extend these rates to all undocumented students in the state.  


In March 2018, the Tennessee legislature voted down a bill that would have banned undocumented students from accessing in-state tuition rates. But the next day, the legislature also failed to pass a bipartisan bill that would have granted access to in-state rates, even as 66 percent of Tennesseans supported in-state tuition for undocumented students.  

The issue came before the legislature during the hotly contested Republican gubernatorial primary. All the Republicans in the race said they sided with the minority of Tennesseans and did not support in-state tuition rates for undocumented students. Unsurprisingly, Diane Black, one of the worst anti-immigrant candidates running in the 2018 midterms made opposition to the issue a notable part of her campaign. In one of her ads, Black makes a point to state her opposition to expanding education for undocumented students. Black’s zealous anti-immigrant approach did not lead her to capture the nomination — but the Republican nominee, Bill Lee, also opposes expanding reduced tuition rates.