Lawmakers reject immigrant tuition measure

Children of parents in country illegally would have gotten in-state status under bill

DENVER – Legislators refused Monday to grant in-state tuition to the children of illegal immigrants.

In a party-line 7-6 vote, the House Education Committee killed Senate Bill 126, which would have granted in-state tuition to students who spend three years in a Colorado high school and graduate, even if they aren’t in the country legally.

Democrats argued it is wrong to punish children for their parents’ violation of immigration law.

One of the sponsors, Sen. Angela Giron, D-Pueblo, fought back tears after the vote and said she would try again next year.

“I know that it will happen. It just breaks my heart for the kids this time,” Giron said.

Twelve other states have passed similar bills. Under Colorado’s version, students without immigration papers would not have received the $1,860 yearly stipend the state gives every resident student.

The deciding vote appeared to be Rep. Robert Ramirez, R-Westminster, whose father emigrated legally from Mexico in the 1960s.

Ramirez said he empathized with the young people who want to go to college.

“Are we teaching a new generation that it is OK to not follow the laws of our country?” Ramirez said. “I’m appalled at the parents who put these children in these situations, extremely appalled. And I’m sorry for any of you who are in that situation, because I wouldn’t want to be in it myself.”

College student Aminta Menjiva testified that her family has had its immigration case pending for 10 years, and she doesn’t have the documents to qualify for in-state tuition rates.

“The road is not easy, because we have to pay up to three or four times more money than traditional students do to go to college,” Menjiva said.

More than 60 supportive students packed into the hearing, wearing white T-shirts with hand-written messages that read: “Future Marine,” “Future graphic designer” or “Future cancer researcher.”

Educational and business leaders also called for the bill’s passage.

But tea party leaders, private citizens and some students argued against it.

Nathaniel Marshall, a Denver high school senior who leads the conservative group Students Organized for American Revival, said his family might not be able to afford to send him to the Colorado School of Mines.

“I recommend that the state makes an effort to fund their own citizens – myself, my siblings and other citizens – before we go out trying to help others,” Marshall said.

Tommy LeForce, a Metro State junior, noted that the Legislature is cutting support to colleges by an average of $877 per student next year, and colleges are raising tuition to make up for the loss of state subsidies.

“It doesn’t make sense to me to decrease tuition for students who chose to come here illegally ... and then increase it for legal residents,” said LeForce, leader of Students for Colorado’s Future, a conservative breakaway group from the College Republicans.

Immigration lawyer Joy Athanasiou said many students who would be affected by the bill are in line for legal status, but U.S. immigration authorities are just now processing applications from 1992.

“Many of those students will be getting lawful status. It’s just a matter of when,” Athanasiou said.

The Senate had passed SB 126 last week on a 20-15 vote, with all Democrats in favor and all Republicans opposed.

A similar bill failed to pass the Senate in 2009.

jhanel@durango herald.com

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