Undocumented students once again denied reduced tuition

The Colorado Statesman

For the sixth time, undocumented Colorado students and their supporters watched with tears in their eyes as state Republicans shot down the latest attempt to offer the students reduced tuition rates.

Few were surprised after House Republican leadership simultaneously assigned Senate Bill 15 to the Republican-controlled House Education and Appropriations committees together. ASSET supporters contend that Speaker Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, assigned it to Education first, where it would be given a “fair” hearing by Rep. Tom Massey, R-Poncha Springs, chairman of the Education Committee and an ASSET supporter, only to meet its demise by opposing Republicans on the Appropriations Committee.

But it was actually the House Finance Committee that did the bill in after the Education Committee on Monday referred the legislation over Finance’s way on a vote of 7-6. The Finance Committee killed SB 15 Wednesday evening on a party-line vote of 7-6.

Still, proponents are viewing this year’s attempt at reduced tuition rates for undocumented students as progress. Much of the Colorado Advancing Students for a Stronger Economy Tomorrow (ASSET) coalition notes that this year the legislation made it not only through the Democratic-controlled Senate, but also through a Republican-controlled House committee, where the coalition was able to flip Massey’s opinion.

“We saw great progress on ASSET this year,” said Lynea Hansen, spokeswoman for the Colorado ASSET coalition. “We made it through a House committee, gained a Republican vote and saw lots of new people join our effort, including many Republicans and business leaders who see the value in ASSET.”

In fact, this year the legislation had the support of a broad coalition, including such prominent Republicans as Alex Cranberg, chairman of Aspect Holdings, Pat Hamill, chief executive of Oakwood Homes, Bob Martinez, former chairman of the Colorado Republican Party, Dick Monfort, owner of the Colorado Rockies, and Dick Robinson, co-chief executive of Robinson Dairy, to name a few.

The added support was likely because proponents this year changed the legislation from offering in-state tuition rates to undocumented students to offering only a reduced tuition rate. The undocumented students would have still paid about $2,000 more than the in-state rate.

The legislation would have created a so-called “standard-rate” for undocumented students who have attended a public or private high school in Colorado for three or more years, and have been admitted to a college or university in Colorado within one year of graduating from high school. Undocumented students would have needed to submit an affidavit to the college or university stating that they have applied, or will apply for lawful residential status in the United States.

But as Rep. Crisanta Duran, sponsor of SB 15, pointed out, the change in language and broad support wasn’t enough to sway Republicans on the House Finance Committee. “It is unfortunate the bipartisan support outside of the Capitol wasn’t able to convince Republican lawmakers to pass the bill,” lamented the Denver Democrat. “I hope for more progress in the future.”

Rep. Kathleen Conti, R-Littleton, led the charge against the “progress,” arguing that Colorado would be in violation of federal law by passing the measure.

“There are federal laws that we are expected to respect as a Legislature that we may not like but we are asked to comply with on a yearly session-by-session basis… If we lose the respect of the rule of law in this country, where are we going?” she asked.

Conti’s comments sparked an exchange between her and immigration law attorney Joy Athanasiou, who argued that the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that education issues fall within the legal jurisdiction of the individual states when it comes to addressing undocumented immigrants.

“What we’re discussing here is a group of individuals who grew up in Colorado, many of whom have been here since they were 6 months of age, 1 year of age, 2 years of age, 3 years of age, who have no other option. This is it,” pleaded Athanasiou. “So, it’s a very different question.”

Conti openly laughed sarcastically at Athanasiou and later said, “In many cases these kids have already had 12 years of educational benefit at the taxpayers’ expense, and may I say their feet on the ground in a nation where they can do more with a high school diploma than any other place on this earth.”

Seemingly contradicting the argument that the undocumented students have a wealth of opportunity as it is in America, Conti’s fellow Republican members on the Finance Committee argued that even once the students graduate from college, they will have little opportunity because they will be undocumented immigrants.

“What I’m trying to get past here is we’re going to setup a situation now where these families are going to invest $4 million into sending their kids to school to get that higher education, but then once they’re done with their education they can’t legally work here,” stated Rep. Brian DelGrosso, R-Loveland, chairman of the House Finance Committee. “We’re not stopping that feeling of hopelessness, we’re just prolonging it… I couldn’t even hire them to deliver pizzas.”

Rep. Angela Williams, D-Denver, who co-sponsored SB 15 in the House with Duran, attempted to debunk that line of thinking, pointing out that even legal residents who go to college in America aren’t guaranteed a job, but at least they have a better shot at a college education.

“We’re talking about the opportunity to afford to give these undocumented students an education and whether or not when they get this education if they can be hired by employers and get jobs, but I want you to think of our students in our state and in our country who do have an opportunity to get an education without any barriers. We can’t even guarantee them getting jobs,” she said.

Democrats and supporters hammered hard on the issue of economic development, arguing that in the short-run the bill would generate an additional $4 million for the state’s institutions of higher education, while building an educated workforce for the future. Because the students and their families would have paid the reduced tuition, there would have been no cost to taxpayers, said supporters.

Sponsors had the support of many prominent Coloradans, including Bill Vidal, former mayor of Denver and the current president of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Metro Denver. Vidal, who is a Cuban immigrant himself, lived in an orphanage before he could be reunited with his family. He spoke to the economic development issue, telling committee members, “Just the return on the investment is an important argument.”

“We have invested in these kids anywhere from $50,000 to $72,000 to educate them already — when you think that a study shows that getting a college degree gives you $2.8 million more in income, it makes sense that at 25 percent at the taxable rate we would get $700,000 back into the public coffers,” continued Vidal. “That’s more than the return on investment we made on their education.”

Rep. John Kefalas, D-Fort Collins, called the bill a “profound moral issue,” stating, “I hope and pray that a bit of a miracle happens in the next five or 10 minutes.”

Unfortunately for supporters, that “miracle” never occurred. Members of Padres y Jovenes Unidos, the Student Government Association of University of Colorado-Denver, the Colorado ASSET coalition, the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition, and simply unaffiliated students themselves, stood with tears in their eyes as the vote came down. Sen. Angela Giron, D-Pueblo, who co-sponsored SB 15 in the Senate with Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, also wiped tears from her eyes as she watched the bill perish.

But Duran remains hopeful, arguing that the issue is not going away. “I can guarantee you that the students behind me and the students who have come to this Capitol over and over and over again to try and make sure that they or people that they know will have access to affordable college and access to the American Dream, are not going to stop,” she said.

Peter@coloradostatesman.com