Party-line votes keep instate tuition bill alive

The Colorado Statesman

Democrats’ latest effort to pass a bill granting instate tuition to undocumented students moved through two committees in the past week and was approved along party-lines both times.

Senate Bill 126, sponsored by Sen. Angela Giron, D-Pueblo, and Sen. Michael Johnston, D-Denver, was reviewed and approved by the Senate Education Committee on Feb. 17 and by the Senate Finance Committee on Feb. 22. The bill is now before the Senate Appropriations Committee for further action.

The bill, known as Advancing Students for a Stronger Economy Tomorrow (ASSET), would grant unsubsidized in-state tuition to undocumented students, so long as they attended a Colorado high school for three years and either graduated or got the General Education Diploma (GED). The student also must certify that he/she has applied or intends to apply for permanent citizenship. Under SB 126, students would be able to get the instate tuition rate but not the Colorado Opportunity Fund voucher, which provides up to $1,860 per year in state general fund support for up to 30 credit hours per year. Students also would not be eligible for state need-based or federal financial aid.

Despite those limitations, undocumented students are eager for the opportunity to go to college.

Aminta Menjivar graduated from a Denver-area high school and is now in college. She told the education committee on Feb. 17 that she spoke not only for herself but for those who could not. She was alone for a reason.

Democrats’ last effort to get a similar bill through the state Capitol was in 2009. At that time, several undocumented students testified in favor of the bill, and under state law they were required to sign in, using their full names and addresses. According to ASSET spokesperson Lynea Hansen, someone copied those names and turned them over to Homeland Security for possible deportation, and the group sponsoring the 2009 legislation had to relocate one of the students for her own safety and that of her family. Johnston told the committee that undocumented students who wanted to testify in favor of SB 126 were advised not to, based on what happened two years ago.

Menjivar said her family has had an immigration case for legal status pending for 10 years. The family is legally in the United States and cannot be deported, but because of the case’s status she cannot get financial aid or instate tuition. It’s difficult to find the money to pay for school, she said. “I realize how easy it is to give up and not go to school.”

Menjivar said she is lucky; a benefactor has stepped in and helped her with college costs, and she now goes to high schools to persuade others to think about college.

“You’ve just seen our future,” said President Stephen Jordan of Metropolitan State College of Denver, where its faculty senate and trustees all have endorsed SB 126.

“We have to invest in young people.” Stop thinking about it as an expense and think about it as an investment, he said, “an investment in intellectual capital that will provide a return to the economy.”

Jordan also pointed out that the United States is in competition with China, Japan, Germany and Spain and Great Britain, and “quite frankly those countries that don’t care that these young people didn’t come here of their own accord. They only care about the best intellectual capital.”

In response to a question from Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, Jordan said the colleges are fully capable of handling the additional students that SB 126 could bring in.

The bill likewise is endorsed by the Colorado Commission on Higher Education, which also supported the 2009 effort, and Republican donor Alex Cranberg, who told the committee that “this is a ‘land of opportunity’ bill, not a subsidy or entitlement bill.”

Sen. Nancy Spence, R-Centennial, told Cranberg she could not support the bill, nor see the advantage of offering “false hope” that undocumented students could not get jobs once they graduate. “Knowledge and learning is not false hope,” replied Cranberg.

Johnston said allowing undocumented students into college while they’re waiting for their legal status is preferable to them sitting at home. “If we allow them to do something productive while their papers are in process, they’re better prepared to help the state and their families once the [immigration] card arrives.”

Opposition to SB 126 came from representatives of the Colorado Alliance for Immigration Reform, among others. But that testimony got off to a rocky start when its state director, Stan Weekes, asked that anyone who was not a “citizen” be ejected by the Sergeant-at-Arms. That confused the committee, until Weekes clarified his request to his real intent — to get anyone in the room who was not a legal citizen evicted from the hearing. “I’m not going to ask the sergeants to…check ID cards,” replied chair Sen. Bob Bacon, D-Fort Collins.

Weekes told the committee that the fiscal note did not reflect the cost of litigation should SB 126 pass, and “I can personally guarantee it will happen.” He also asked that the witness list be scrutinized to check for undocumented individuals, and complained that a “non-citizen” had already testified.

Professor Robert Hardaway of the University of Denver Sturm College of Law told the committee that SB 126 would result in the state discriminating against U.S. citizens and legal immigrants who are not Colorado residents and who cannot get instate tuition. Allowing undocumented students to go to college will later turn them into felons, Hardaway said, because they cannot get jobs and will have to break the law to get them. “It’s not fair and not right,” he said.

At the conclusion of nearly three hours of testimony, Johnston pleaded with his Republican colleagues not to pass the bill only on a party-line vote. He pointed out that in 10 other states, 275 Republican legislators have voted in favor of similar bills, and in many legislative bodies nearly unanimously.

But it became obvious that his pleas would fall on deaf ears. Spence pointed out that 40 states hadn’t passed similar bills, and that not all Democrats supported the bill in Colorado in 2009. Sen. Scott Renfroe, R-Greeley, said he found the arguments compelling. “It tugs at you — the difficult situation a child is put in because of the action of his parents.” But he could not support SB 126 because the problem of immigration must first be solved at the federal level. “The rule of law must be adhered to,” he said.

“We have every selfish reason to pass this bill,” said Heath, who explained that a recent trip to China scared the “bejeebers” out of him. Not only is China putting every two-year old in pre-school, he said, they are taking “a compulsion for education” all the way to graduate and doctoral programs.

SB 126 was sent to the Senate Finance Committee because it could generate tuition revenue for state colleges and universities. The fiscal note was substantially changed in the last week, estimated at a minimum of $770,000 in revenue per year for 150 to 200 students at the community colleges and four-year institutions. The original fiscal note estimated the revenue at a minimum of $215,000 for 50 to 100 students.

Hardaway was back for Tuesday’s committee hearing, testifying that a preliminary analysis showed that the average cost of a public college education is about $59,000 per year, while the instate student pays about $17,000 per year. That means taxpayers subsidize about $170,000 for a four-year degree, he said. A college education should be available only to those who pay taxes, Hardaway explained, saying that allowing illegal immigrants into the colleges would keep residents out. “Don’t turn away Colorado residents,” he pleaded. Johnston disagreed with Hardaway’s numbers, noting that a resident at CU-Boulder pays about $6,400 per year and an out-of-state student pays about $26,000 per year; he also noted that out-of-state tuition subsidizes the costs for instate students.

SB 126 is now headed to Senate Appropriations for further action, and then on to the Senate floor, where its support hinges on votes from one of the three Democrats who voted against its predecessor in 2009: Sen. Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora; Sen. Lois Tochtrop, D-Adams County; and Sen. Linda Newell, D-Littleton. Two other Democrats who voted against it in 2009 are gone, and one of the replacements, Sen. Cheri Jahn, D-Wheat Ridge, has said she would vote for it.

Carroll has said she had constitutional concerns about the issue, but she also has been involved in the drafting of SB 126 to deal with those problems.

Marianne@coloradostatesman.com