House approves ASSET after six prior attempts

Tuition bill for undocumented students heads to Governor’s desk
The Colorado Statesman

Undocumented students and their supporters embraced in warm hugs with tears of joy streaming down their eyes Friday morning as the House took a historic final vote on providing in-state tuition to the paperless residents.

The recorded vote saw three Republicans join with Democrats in supporting the controversial measure by a vote of 40-21, with four lawmakers excused. Republican Reps. Cheri Gerou of Evergreen, Clarice Navarro of Pueblo and Kevin Priola of Henderson supported the Advancing Students for a Strong Economy Tomorrow, or ASSET bill, which over the course of a decade has been rejected on six previous occasions, never before making it to the House for a full vote.

Its passage signals a change in direction over immigration, as both Republicans and Democrats have called for comprehensive reform efforts. President Barack Obama over the summer signed an executive order for “deferred action,” offering a path to education and citizenship for millions of undocumented youth. And a growing number of conservatives and faith-based groups have joined the call for Congress to take action. Political observers have blamed the Republicans’ trouncing at the polls last November partly on disconnect with Latino voters.

In the meantime, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators, emboldened by calls from Obama, are working on a proposal that would provide a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

Despite progress, the issue remains polarized. State Senate Bill 33, sponsored by Sens. Angela Giron, D-Pueblo, and Mike Johnston, D-Denver, and Reps. Crisanta Duran, D-Denver, and Angela Williams, D-Denver, passed with Democrats in control of both chambers of the legislature. The Senate backed the measure last month. It will almost surely be signed into law, as Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper has repeatedly expressed his support.

Perhaps highlighting the power struggle with Democrats controlling the legislature, Republicans found themselves on the defensive, especially during the bill’s initial passage on Tuesday. The GOP was fueled by an eyebrow-raising comment from Duran.

“We also have so much support from faith-based organizations… that believe God loves all people, even the undocumented,” she said.

Later in the debate, as Republicans voiced concerns over fiscal impacts to the state, Duran responded, “I’m frustrated. There is just this air of arrogance that is being brought forward.”

The Republican side of the aisle immediately hissed the Latino lawmaker, shouting, “Out of line.”

House Minority Leader Mark Waller, R-Colorado Springs, took to the well, where he expressed his astonishment at Duran’s remarks.

“That doesn’t mean that we don’t love all of God’s children; that doesn’t mean that we’re arrogant, Rep. Duran,” Waller addressed her. “It simply means we have a concern related to this.”

The primary concern raised by Republicans came over the bill’s fiscal impact. Fiscal analysts estimate that the measure would raise $2 million in additional tuition revenue in 2013-14 and $3 million in 2014-15. The fiscal note projects that the legislation would help 500 students in the next school year, with up to 250 more joining the program each year until 2016-17.

Students would need to attend a Colorado high school for three years prior to graduation, or have finished a GED, be admitted to a state college or university and provide an affidavit stating that they applied for lawful residency in the U.S., or will apply for lawful residency when eligible.

Republicans do not believe that the true cost over the life of the program has been accurately appropriated. Gerou, a member of the Joint Budget Committee who considers herself a stickler for numbers, supported the measure. But in doing so, she raised serious concerns over the appropriation.

She believes a version of Colorado ASSET last year was a better proposal because it did not include language that would make undocumented students eligible for the discount from the College Opportunity Fund, a taxpayer funded state program that aims to assist disadvantaged and minority students.

“I’m voting for this bill. But you know what I don’t like? I don’t like what the sponsors have done with the… ‘We’re not going to talk about the fact that this is how much the bill really costs,’” declared Gerou.

“You know what I have a problem with? This appropriation is no appropriation. It tells those undocumented students that we don’t want to be honest about how much it’s going to cost to implement the bill. We don’t want to be honest with these students about how much they actually mean to us. We don’t want to be honest. We’re going to say we’re going to treat them the same, but we’re not even willing to appropriate dollars in the bill,” she continued.

In the end, however, Gerou supported the measure because of its overall intent. Joining her from the Republican caucus was Priola.

“I still see the underlying wisdom in the bill,” he addressed colleagues. “We in the State of Colorado are now dealing with the problem that all of us have created over the previous decades… But there are children with futures and bright minds at stake that are in limbo. That if it were for the fact that they could afford to become doctors and engineers, and yes, even lawyers, they would.

“I believe the GOP stands for Grand Opportunity Party,” Priola added.

But the majority of Republicans opposed the bill, offering a string of failed amendments in an attempt to spotlight their concerns, including:

• Stating the potential cost to the state;

• Referring it to a vote of the people;

• Opening the program up to residents of any state;

• Stating that it would conflict with 2006 state immigration legislation; and

• Asserting that undocumented students would still be in danger of unemployment because of their illegal status.
Rep. Brian DelGrosso, R-Loveland, believes the measure is so out-of-line with state laws that lawmakers might as well offer the discount to students in any state.

“What this bill is saying is if you are not a legal resident of Colorado, we’re going to give you in-state tuition. So, if we’re already setting that into law… why not open it up for kids from Wyoming?” he asked.

Rep. Amy Stephens, R-Monument, pointed out that since public dollars would be affected, it should go to a vote of the people.

“Taxpayers need to know what it’s going to cost for higher education, just as they sit around the kitchen table talking about how they’re going to send their kids to school,” she said.

Waller said it would be unfair to suggest that the measure would result in more undocumented students finding jobs. “I believe that is inappropriate hope to put on these children,” he said.

Democrats point to hope and opportunity

But Democrats said hope would come in the form of offering a legitimate opportunity to attend college at an affordable rate. They pointed out that the students came to the United States as young children because their families made the decision to violate the law.

“Their future must begin now,” said Williams. “We cannot continue to tell these students to get an education, better your lot in life, and then take it away from them with tuition very few can afford…

“The person who will discover a cure for cancer may be sitting in this very audience,” she concluded, as undocumented students watched from the House gallery.

Duran attempted to debunk claims over unfair taxpayer spending by pointing out that studies have shown that undocumented immigrants pay $115 million to state and local taxes, and $22 million in property taxes, which is used for school funding.

But the most emotional testimony came from freshman Rep. Dominick Moreno, D-Commerce City, who enjoys telling personal stories when explaining his votes on legislation.

He told the story of a girl who he once knew when she was a student on the Commerce City Youth and Teen Advisory Committee. Moreno recalled how last week he suffered a flat tire, forcing him to take the bus to the Capitol. It was on this bus that he reunited with the student.

“She was brought to the United States, she was brought to Colorado when she was 1-year-old, and English is her first language,” Moreno explained, as tears welled in his eyes and his voice choked. The House chamber calmed to only a murmur as he told his story.

“She rides the bus two hours each way to get to work so she can save up enough money so she might be able to attend college,” he said. “She dreams of being a history teacher, and every day she reminds her brothers and sisters of who they are, of how lucky that they were born in this country, and to not take their education for granted.

“When I talk about this bill, I don’t speak about it in abstract terms. These are people I know, these are people I went to high school with,” Moreno continued. “Members, I’m tired of the No. 1 student in my advanced calculus class now being a waitress at a restaurant because she didn’t have enough money to go to college.”

Students react with joy

Cesiah Guadarrama, whose parents brought her to the United States from Mexico when she was 6 years old, said she finally has a chance to attend college next year when she graduates from Westminster High School. She was in attendance as the House sent the measure to the governor.

“This is a huge victory for us. We haven’t been fighting for this for two years, or five years — I was 8 when this started, so this is definitely a big victory for us. It’s opened so many doors,” explained Guadarrama.

Gloria Mendoza, a mother whose children may benefit from the program, had tears in her eyes as she stood in the House lobby with bill sponsors and supporters.

“I have kids that want to go to college, so I’m hoping that now they can go to college so that they can have a better future,” she said. “I’m glad that I finally can get them some good news.”

Cheers erupted throughout the halls of the Capitol as students and their supporters gathered in a large group to celebrate.

“When education was under attack what did we do?” they chanted. “Stand up, fight back,” the group responded.
“Up, up with education,” came another chant. “Down, down with deportation.”

Johnston, an educator who has been working with undocumented students for the majority of his career, walked the lobby hugging students, supporters and fellow sponsors with a wide smile stretched across his face.

“I’m just thinking of all the kids around the state right now who are sitting in class who now have a real chance to go to college,” remarked Johnston, as House sponsor Williams walked up to him to offer a hug of congratulations. “I’m thinking of all the kids I’ve given diplomas to and put a cap and gown on them before who have been waiting for this moment who now have a real chance.”

Peter@coloradostatesman.com