Bill on in-state tuition for undocumented students passes state Senate

The Colorado Statesman

The Senate this week approved Senate Bill 11-126, the bill that would give unsubsidized in-state tuition rates to undocumented students. And while the bill’s supporters cheered the milestone of getting it out of the Senate, the next hurdle is larger: getting it out of the House Education Committee, where it was assigned Thursday and may be heard as soon as Monday.

There’s also the small matter of whether Gov. John Hickenlooper supports it, and if his responses to questions on the bill Thursday are any indication, Republicans may have a lot to smile about.

The vote on SB 126, also called Advancing Students for a Stronger Economy Tomorrow (ASSET), was strictly along party lines on Monday, with all 20 Democrats in favor and all 15 Republicans voting against. But getting the support of all of the Democrats was historic in itself: the last time a similar bill was tried, in 2009, the bill failed to gain enough support from Senate Democrats to even get it to a final vote in that chamber.

SB 126 applies to undocumented students who want to go to a Colorado public college or university and want to get tuition at rates near that of Colorado residents. Those who would be eligible for the unsubsidized tuition rate would have to attend a Colorado high school for three years, graduate or get a general education diploma (GED), apply to college within 12 months of high school graduation, and file an affidavit with the college or university that says the students has or will apply for legal citizenship status.

Undocumented students who seek the unsubsidized tuition rate would not be eligible for state-funded need-based financial aid, and they would also not be eligible for the College Opportunity Fund stipend, which for 2011-12 would be valued at $62 per credit hour for a maximum of 30 credit hours in a school year, or $1,860.

SB 126 got the support Monday from three Senate Democrats who had opposed the 2009 effort, SB 09-170: Sens. Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora; Linda Newell, D-Littleton; and Lois Tochtrop, D-Thornton. The three were among five “no” votes from Senate Democrats in 2009 that helped defeat SB 170 on a 16-18 second reading roll-call vote. SB 126 also got the support of Sen. Cheri Jahn, D-Wheat Ridge, who succeeded a term-limited Democrat who voted no in 2009, Sen. Moe Keller.

Sen. Angela Giron, D-Pueblo, one of two sponsors of SB 126, told The Colorado Statesman that SB 126 was different from previous efforts, and noted that Carroll had added language to the bill that strengthened it. “People wanted to make sure we were on good legal standing,” and they wanted to do the right thing, Giron said. “It has that potential to be a revenue-generator for higher ed,” and she said that also helped people to see the benefits of SB 126.

Giron told the House on April 15 that the issue is what got her to run for the Senate last year. “Far too many kids and families cannot dream beyond high school,” she said. “We believe in opportunity, and we know the difference opportunity made in our own lives. We want to make sure all Colorado kids have the same access.”

But supporting SB 126 is also good public and fiscal policy, said co-sponsor Sen. Michael Johnston, D-Denver, who pointed out that after passage of a similar law in Texas, that state’s colleges and universities drew in $27 million in tuition. The fiscal note for SB 126 shows similar potential, at a time when the state’s colleges and universities are facing cuts, not revenue growth.

Republicans argued that SB 126 runs contrary to federal law and policy, that undocumented students who graduate from college still cannot be legally employed in this country and that granting in-state tuition would provide an incentive for more illegal immigration. “Some of us would like federal immigration policy to be different,” said Sen. Shawn Mitchell, R-Broomfield, who called the effort “the politics of gesture and symbolism.”

“What we do today will not affect federal law,” Mitchell said. “It’s savagely absurd to spend four years on the same conveyor belt and then dumped into an economy with a statutory framework that says you can’t work here. That is not compassion. That is taking human hostages in the battle over immigration.” Mitchell also noted that the affidavit for citizenship, which he called an empty gesture, which require the student to return to the country of origin to file it and would take years to process.

“There is nothing symbolic that in 30 days students will walk across their high school stages for their diplomas” and either have a chance at college or don’t, Johnston responded. It’s not a matter of a federal or state solution, he said; it’s a matter of making education accessible, something already available in 11 other states. Doing nothing does not offer hope, Johnston said.

Senate Minority Leader Mike Kopp, R-Littleton, said the debate brought up one of those “curious situations where feelings of personal charity conflict with our broader obligations to uphold the rule of law,” and said the question is whether Colorado can use a standard other than residency as a way to grant in-state tuition rates.

“We have to give credence to what makes our country a country,” said Sen. Mark Scheffel, R-Parker. “What kind of message does it send when we educate fine kids who deserve an education but deny them the ability to be employed?” In passing SB 126 the state would send a huge mixed signal and “bumping into an enormous debate that is not resolved.”

Her voice breaking, Sen. Lucia Guzman, D-Denver, said she hoped one day she could sit under a Texas pecan tree and tell Anglo and Mexican-American children that one day, many years ago, children could not go to college because of something their parents did. These children had no choice but to come with their parents to this country, Guzman said. To Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs, the principal of a charter school, Guzman said she didn’t know of any school, including charter schools, that don’t have at least one undocumented student. King’s response? While he is sure there are kids at his school who are not here legally, he doesn’t ask.

“If I err when I serve the Senate,” Guzman said, “I hope I will always err on behalf of innocent people.”

“No one told me the Senate would be this hard,” said Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, in explaining her “no” vote. “It’s not about the value or worth of people,” which she called indisputable. The bill is about the perpetually “messed-up” immigration system, which she said “does not get us to a fair and just world,” and that SB 126 would not improve it.

And Sen. Ted Harvey, R-Highlands Ranch, said the question is whether poor Americans should subsidize and encourage illegal behavior. “You can spin it anyway you want,” he told the Democrats, but state law (passed in 2006) says Colorado cannot give benefits to illegal immigrants. “It’s not documented or undocumented, it’s legal or illegal,” he said.

Despite the tense and often emotional debate, at the end, Johnston crossed the aisle to shake hands with Harvey, and tell him “well done.”

SB 126 was assigned Thursday to the House Education Committee, which is chaired by Rep. Tom Massey, R-Poncha Springs. SB 126 House sponsor Rep. Joe Miklosi, D-Denver, says he has no firm Republican commitments at this point but he is hopeful that the measure will gain enough support — and he may need as little as one vote. And while getting at least one House Republican to vote for SB 126 may be difficult, it’s not unprecedented. The 2003 bill that got as far as the House floor had the support of seven different Republicans, who voted HB 03-1178 out of the education and appropriations committees.

But if SB 126 gets out of the House, whether it will be signed by the governor is a big “if.” Thursday, during a press conference on his first 100 days, Hickenlooper was asked what role, if any, he would play in getting SB 126 out of the House. Part of his response was to repeat several Republican talking points from the Senate debate a week earlier: that the issue is a larger one that needs to be dealt with at the federal issue, and that undocumented students who graduate from college are barred from legal employment in this country.

The challenges around immigration are larger than in-state tuition, Hickenlooper said, but added that in the last 10 years the nation has made very little progress on the issue. “Our real challenge is to create a system where we don’t marginalize or have thousands of people living lives underground, where businesses can be held accountable in a system that really works.”

Hickenlooper said that while in-state tuition is part of the solution, even if students without papers were able to go to college and graduate, “what’s their next job opportunity? They have to leave the country to have a job that would be fulfilling” or at least match the degree earned. Hickenlooper said he had spoken to his fellow governors last month at the National Governors Association conference on how to put pressure on Congress to move forward on the issue, but also said it was unacceptable that the opposing sides on the immigration issue have not been able to find compromise.