Dereliction of duty

Abbott decides that some Texas vets don’t deserve education benefits. Surprise! They’re immigrants.

“Sorry I Asked” could have been the title of Senator Leticia Van de Putte’s January 2006 letter to Attorney General Greg Abbott. An appropriate heading for the AG’s July 21 reply would be “Another Sign (in case you needed it) That Republicans Are Anti-Immigrant.”

Last year, moved by the plight of a neighbor who had served several years in the military but was being denied Texas education benefits because he had only lived in the state for eight months when he enlisted, Van de Putte asked Abbott to clarify the meaning of “Texas citizen” in the 80-year-old Hazlewood Act, which requires Texas colleges and universities to give qualifying Lone Star veterans up to 150 hours in free tuition once they have exhausted their federal education benefits. Abbott went one step further and determined that the legislature must have intended that the veterans also be U.S. citizens when they joined the military.

Concerned that this interpretation would deny higher-education opportunities to veterans who had passed the ultimate citizenship test, Van de Putte requested a clarification: Did Abbott really mean to screw Texas vets who had served their country?

The answer, apparently, is yes, and understandably some folks are upset.

“You’re taking away something that I believed I had all along,” says Naser Alzer, a native of Jordan who has lived in Texas since 1987 — except when he was serving in the military, a tour of duty that included time in Somalia. Alzer joined the Texas National Guard in 1989 and was eventually called into active duty. In 1992 he became a U.S. citizen. In this context, the citizenship oath seems a little anticlimactic.

Even more ironically, Van de Putte points out that the vets Abbott has excluded qualify for federal GI Bill education benefits. She describes another vet who contacted her office who is, she says, a typical example: A former military officer who has lived in the U.S. since he was a toddler, he didn’t become a citizen until after his Desert Storm tour of duty. He was using his Hazlewood benefits to complete a degree when Abbott pulled the plug.

As I discuss the situation with Alzer, he becomes increasingly agitated. “How could they do something like this?” he demands.

One answer might be rising education costs. During the 2005 legislative session, colleges and universities lobbied for a law that would require the state to compensate them for the cost of educating Hazlewood students — $14.4 million in 2004-05 according to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (student numbers were not available, but in 2003-04 more than 8,800 vets used the program). Currently there are no reliable statistics for how many veterans are eligible under Hazlewood, but some legislators and educators are worried that the current Iraq war will yield a “bubble” of returning servicemembers ready for college.

But there are better ways to keep costs under control than by punishing vets who have served their new country. A 2004 report by the Senate Committee on Veteran Affairs and Military Installations, which Van de Putte chairs, noted that because the Texas legislature has never officially declared an end to the Cold War, any qualifying resident who has served on active duty since its inception qualifies for Hazlewood.

But Van de Putte is concerned about another kind of cost. “Some of our recruiters are extremely worried,” she said. “If we’re going to keep pace with the growing war on terrorism, we increasingly depend on our recruitment efforts.” The flip side of that argument was also noted in the 2004 interim report: Military recruiters have relied on the education-funding carrot. “I was planning on `using Hazlewood` because I ran out of VA benefits,” says Alzer, who says he diligently kept track of his benefits because he is interested in attending law school. “It is a bad decision.”

Van de Putte says she plans to introduce a bill to remedy the situation in the 80th Regular Session. “What I would like to do is just do the single shot to make sure that our veterans who qualify for federal education benefits also qualify locally.

“I can understand in the current heated climate of debate on national immigration reform the sensitivity to non-citizen issues,” Van de Putte added, “but these are people who have served our country valiantly.”


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