A major hurdle was passed in the Colorado House of Representatives when a bill designed to provide in-state tuition to undocumented students attending public colleges and universities was passed with bi-partisan support. But, before the vote, emotions rode high.
One by one, members of the Colorado House of Representatives took to the podium on a measure that has vexed Colorado and other states for years, in-state tuition for the children of undocumented immigrants.
If undocumented students who can prove they attended a Colorado high school for three years and graduated would be eligible for in-state tuition irrespective of their current immigration status.
“What this bill means is that we would treat undocumented students the same way we treat all students,” said Denver Representative and House sponsor, Crisanta Duran. Colorado now provides free K-12 education to all students regardless of immigration status.
If SB 33 becomes law, Colorado will join more than a dozen other states, including nearby Kansas and Utah, in providing in-state tuition to undocumented students. Last summer, Metropolitan State University of Denver created a special tuition schedule that allows undocumented students to pay a rate midway between what in-state and out of state students pay.
On Tuesday, Democrats and a number of Republican House members voted to kill an amendment that would have called for state voters to decide on instate tuition for undocumented students. The amendment died on a voice vote.
“I’m voting for this bill,” said Evergreen Republican Cheri Gerou. “But it is not transparent.” Gerou says SB33 is going to end up costing money. “I don’t like what the sponsor’s have done — hidden the costs.”
Duran says there is nothing hidden in the measure and adds that to suggest otherwise is premature and wrong. “The bill will not burden Colorado taxpayers with an additional cost.” When it goes before the Joint Budget Committee, she says, opponents will see that there are no hidden costs. But while the bill has bipartisan support, that is a far cry from unanimous support.
“Why not open it up to kids from Wyoming,” asked Loveland Republican Brian DelGrosso. “It’s no cost, right?” Actually, a number of states already offer in-state tuition to out-of-state students. Colorado and New Mexico recently renewed their tuition reciprocity agreement.
Colorado Springs Republican Amy Stephens painted SB 33 as a boon to undocumented students and unfair to legal state residents. “Taxpayers are trying to send their own children to college,” she said. “They’re trying to figure out how to do it.”
Republicans opposing SB 33 are swimming against a tide that has been turning since the presidential election. Within days of the election, Republicans, including Sens. John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Marco Rubio called for serious changes in the nation’s immigration laws.
With an estimated 12-million undocumented immigrants, mostly Mexican, already in the country, Republicans reversing themselves on immigration may be as practical as it is political. It may also be the first step toward recapturing ground lost in national elections. President Obama won seventy percent of all Latino voters in November.
Providing in-state tuition to undocumented students, many of whom know no other country, is also a matter of fairness, Duran says. “These people are taxpayers,” she said. “Their families paid more than $115 million in taxes. It is not only the people who vote who pay taxes.”
There are no firm numbers on how many students will take advantage of the measure if it passes. But, undocumented families live and work in nearly every city or town in the state. At Metro State, it is estimated that several hundred undocumented students took advantage of the mid-level tuition schedule that begin last fall.
“Don’t you want a return on our investment?” asks Pueblo Senator and co-sponsor Angela Giron. “This is an economic issue.”
Giron says in-state tuition for undocumented students is supported by all of the state’s colleges and universities. “These kids are going to pay into our higher education institutions. We’re educating our citizens and we’re going to get that return on higher taxes from someone that has a high school diploma versus someone who has a degree.”
Giron says that while SB 33 may carry an emotional element to it, even opponents have to see the practical side. “Companies are going to quit coming here. We’re not growing our own.” Giron also says that if Colorado doesn’t create a path for undocumented students to affordably attend college, they will leave the state and go somewhere that is already extending tuition relief.
“It’s going to pass,” said Democrat Dan Pabon. The Denver attorney watched as his colleagues created a cue next to the microphone. “It’s not just Democrats supporting it.”
Indeed, one surprising voice of support on granting in-state tuition is Wray’s Greg Brophy. Long known as one of his party’s most conservative voices, Brophy says his change of heart on the matter came about after he just considered it in practical terms. Wray is an agricultural town that depends on seasonal workers, many of whom are undocumented and Mexican.
The debate over in-state tuition for undocumented students is nothing new for former Thornton House member Val Vigil, who dropped by the chamber to watch the proceedings.
“I introduced the same thing ten years ago,” Vigil said. His measure went down to defeat. “I was the only one who spoke up. Where was all this support back then?”
Vigil says he isn’t bitter that his measure never took off. Maybe, he says, it just wasn’t time.