As people continue to leave the state, Wyoming finds itself at a crossroads, left to wonder how it can grow its economy as its best and brightest leave for jobs and opportunities in other states.
Two Democratic senators think they have an answer to solve part of that problem and plan on introducing a bill that, if passed, will open up a whole new population of high school graduates to the state’s Hathaway Scholarship Program.
If passed, the Hathaway Eligibility Act would repeal a provision of the Wyoming Constitution which excludes certain noncitizens from eligibility for the state’s Hathaway Scholarship, which is currently unavailable to non-U.S. citizens. By striking the citizenship requirement, Sen. Mike Gierau, the bill’s chief sponsor, said he believes he can offer sufficient incentive to Wyoming high schoolers whose immigration status might be “hazy” but who have a desire to live, work and obtain an education in Wyoming.
Students applying for the Hathaway Scholarship would still have to fulfill the other requirements of the program, including attending school in Wyoming and maintaining a certain level of academic achievement. By simply repealing the citizenship requirement, Gierau said, Wyoming would open the door to residents who may have attended school in Wyoming their entire lives and achieved good grades but would be unable to access scholarships that would allow them to attend school in their home state.
“We as a legislature — and the state in general — always wring our hands about our best and brightest leaving the state; sometimes they leave us straight out of high school, and sometimes they go to UW and leave,” said Gierau, who is co-sponsoring the bill with Sen. Liisa Anselmi-Dalton, D-Rock Springs.
“So what do we do about it? How I look at it is we have another group of people who, sometimes through no fault of their own, might have an immigration status that is somewhat cloudy. They could go kindergarten through 12th grade and make great grades. Yet, they can’t get a Hathaway Scholarship because of that first question: ‘Are you a U.S. citizen?’ Sometimes, that’s a little complicated.”
“Kids can go years through our system and nobody asks them that question,” he added. “They just want to get an education.”
This will be the second attempt to pass the bill for Gierau, who last introduced the bill in 2017. Despite passing out of the Education Committee by a 5-4 vote, the bill did not get to the floor for debate and was narrowly shot down in the Rules Committee for inclusion as an amendment to a larger Hathaway Scholarship bill.
“My hope this year is I get it out of the committee and onto the floor so I can make the case,” he said. “This is about economics. This is about the very thing we talk about all the time: how we can get our kids to stay here. Well, I’ve got a group of kids who are dying to stay here and dying to get an education. So how about it?”
Immigration and economics
While Gierau acknowledges some may misconstrue the intentions of his bill, he asserts that his bill is purely motivated by one thing: economics.
While the immigrant population in Wyoming is small — making up less than 4 percent of the state’s population, according to figures from the American Immigration Council — it provides an important role in the state’s workforce. In Gierau’s home of Teton County, immigrants directly or indirectly contribute nearly $366 million to the local economy, according to a 2009 study by the University of Wyoming, and make up 6 percent of the local workforce despite only making up approximately 4.5 percent of the local population.
Within that population is opportunity, Gierau said. For first-generation immigrant families in particular, their children are more likely to stay close to home. With a little more than a quarter of the state’s immigration population lacking documentation, according to AIC estimates, the lack of access to a Hathaway Scholarship could mean dozens of students who want to pursue higher education in Wyoming cannot, which Gierau said is a missed chance for the state to retain potential talent.
“In our country’s history, who are the kids who stayed home? Usually the families of first-generation immigrants,” said Gierau. “We worry about losing kids, but here is a set of kids who are most likely to stay here. I’m not saying we give them any more, I’m saying we don’t give them any less. We need to give them the opportunity to get that education and stay here.”
Currently, numerous students are denied that opportunity every year due to their immigration status, said Travis Helm, an immigration attorney in Laramie and a former Democratic candidate for Congress. He said that between five and 20 times a year, he’ll run into stories of students who could be walking across the stage for graduation and hear they’ve earned a Hathaway Scholarship, only to have it investigated and rescinded on their first day of class.
“These students are invested in Wyoming, and Wyoming has invested in them by giving them an education here,” Helm said. “… We’re losing population every year, and we’re losing young people we’ve already invested in. We need to hold onto that investment, not discard it so recklessly and angrily.”
Gierau, similarly, sees his legislation from the standpoint of dollars and cents — and a potential tenet of the state’s economic development efforts.
“If we believe in (Gov. Matt Mead’s economic development plan) and we believe in those principles, we need a workforce,” he said. “Right now, we’re having a tough time attracting them. But there’s a group of kids here I think could be the spark. They just need a hand — not a handout.”
Follow politics reporter Nick Reynolds on Twitter @IAmNickReynolds