House Education consigns ASSET to the scrap heap

The Colorado Statesman

The Senate sponsors of Senate Bill 11-126, the bill that sought to grant undocumented students access to in-state tuition, are taking the bill’s defeat in stride and promise they’ll be back.

The House Education Committee Monday killed SB 126 on a 7-6 party line vote, after more than five hours of sometimes emotional testimony.

But Sens. Angela Giron, D-Pueblo, and Michael Johnston, D-Denver, both said this week they will continue to fight for the cause. To her supporters on Facebook Monday night, Giron said she was heartbroken by the bill’s defeat. “I can’t imagine how others are feeling, especially students who were counting on us.” But Giron vowed to keep pushing. “We did not fail, we are moving forward constantly” and will stop at nothing “to create positive change and justice.”

“We will try something next year,” Giron told The Colorado Statesman Tuesday. She said she thought that when people were presented with the facts they would do the right thing. “Maybe that doesn’t happen up here,” she said. “Lesson learned.” However, she said she also learned a lesson on persistence and that she is already talking to Republicans about what might gain the 33rd vote. Giron indicated she was not surprised by the education committee vote. “I want [our colleagues] to be thoughtful and do their research, get the facts and vote based on that.”

“Idealistic. That’s how we like ‘em,” quipped Johnston. But he also said they could not wait for electoral change, for example, to try again. “We have no time to wait. Every year there’s another class of graduating seniors who either have a chance to go to college or don’t. This year’s class of graduating seniors don’t. We’ll try something every year until we get it fixed.” Johnston said he and Giron would sit down with Republicans who might be on the fence or with critics of the proposal to see what is possible. “We’re not resting.”

SB 126, known as the Advancing Students for a Stronger Economy Tomorrow (ASSET), would allow the state to grant unsubsidized in-state tuition rates to undocumented students who attend a Colorado high school for three years and either graduate or obtain a general education diploma (GED). Students would not be eligible for state or federal need-based financial aid or the state-funded College Opportunity Fund voucher, valued at $62 per credit hour for a maximum of 30 credit hours per year.

The bill passed the Senate on a party-line vote last week and supporters had hoped there would be one House Republican who would cross the line to vote for it. And in the future, that might not be so far-fetched.

The education committee hearing, held in a packed Old Supreme Court Chambers Monday, brought in a large number of high school students who wore hand-lettered t-shirts with “future lawyer,” “future doctor,” and other future professions.

Supporters lined up to speak in favor of the bill, noting its support from college trustees, faculty, college Republicans, nine chambers of commerce and the Colorado Commission on Higher Education. SB 126 also got the support of two Denver mayors: current Mayor Bill Vidal and former Mayor Federico Peña.

“These young people behind me are our future,” said Steve Jordan, president of Metropolitan State College of Denver. Every single one of them “is our future and we need to value them.” Jordan pleaded with the committee’s Republicans to consider the investment made in the students’ education up through high school, and not to throw that investment away by denying them access to in-state tuition.

Craig Carlson, immediate past president of the Metro North Chamber of Commerce, said the state will only get the best and brightest for its workforce by educating the best and brightest, but that Colorado imports most of its talented workforce.

The only undocumented person to testify Monday is one who didn’t fear being turned in to immigration authorities. Aminta Menjivar of Denver is a legal resident whose family has had an immigration case pending for ten years, and she cannot get in-state tuition rates when she goes to college. SB 126 co-sponsor Rep. Angela Williams, D-Denver, noted that in 2009, an opponent of SB 09-170 took the witness list for that bill and turned it over to immigration authorities for deportation. “We do not want to put any of our students in jeopardy,” Williams said.

The 70 CEOs who make up the Colorado Forum also support SB 126, in part because it allows students to go to college without taxpayer subsidy. Gail Klapper said they also support SB 126 because it puts the students on the path to citizenship. The bill also was supported by the College Republicans at the University of Denver. Jacob Gunter said that while the United States needs to seal off its borders from illegal immigration, it also must do something about those who are already here. “We need more people to be educated — an educated populace is a rich populace,” Gunter said. “If they’re intelligent and capable, why deny them that right?” It’s an investment worth making, he added. “You’ve shown that this doesn’t have to be a partisan issue,” said Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Frisco.

In stark contrast to the Senate education committee hearing, those opposed to SB 126 came out in force. “Colorado is faced with an invasion of illegal immigrants,” said John Brick of the American Citizens’ Party and the Colorado Alliance for Immigration Reform (CAIR) “These people presume on the kindness of Colorado citizens,” burden charities, are “illegally building a better life on the back of Colorado citizens” and now on Colorado’s colleges and universities. Nancy Rumfelt of Liberty Watch also testified against SB 126, saying that while she didn’t begrudge children who came to this country with their parents and had no choice in the matter, she sympathized with those who have to live around illegal immigrants and the gang and crime problems she said they bring. As to college, Rumfelt said SB 126 will “force Colorado citizens to compete with illegal immigrants” for college slots. “We need to stop diluting our citizenship and it must mean something. If the laws don’t work, we need to fix them.”

Christy Rodriquez of the Colorado Tea Party Alliance said that the bill would penalize her children. “They won’t get in-state tuition because they are not illegal aliens, they were born here,” she said. Rodriquez explained that her father and brother have fought for the United States in the military, and they “did not risk their lives for people who have stolen their way into our country.”

A witness opposed to SB 126 spoke in threatening tones to the committee, warning legislators in an angry voice that if they didn’t “do something” about illegal immigration “us people are going to do something about it.” Eddie Lake, who runs a construction business in Denver, said the Legislature was “giving his country away,” and that he can’t compete with construction businesses that hire illegal aliens. “I’m getting pretty damn tired of it,” he said, several times. “You don’t have any business talking about this, wasting our time with this!”

“Illegal means illegal,” said David DiCarlo of Highlands Ranch, who said he represented his kids, who are “future jobless, future can’t afford my house…We need to stop rewarding illegal behavior and start punishing it.”

High school and college students spoke both in favor of SB 126 and against it. Two students from Littleton High School presented petitions in favor of SB 126; Nathaniel Marshall of the Denver School for Science and Technology spoke against it, stating that he has applied for college scholarships and come up empty-handed. The state should fund its own citizens before helping others, he said. The bill also drew opposing testimony from students at Metro State, and opposition from the College Republicans at Mesa State.

After five hours of testimony, committee members explained how they would vote, except for one Republican who appeared to struggle with his vote.

Kids come here for hope, said SB 126 co-sponsor Rep. Joe Miklosi, D-Denver. “When you have a college degree, you’re empowered to take on the world and these kids deserve that chance,” he said, his voice breaking with emotion. Hamner, a former school district superintendent, said that kids are told to stay in school, graduate from high school and go on to the next step, and the K-12 system is designed “to leave no child behind.” But without SB 126, these kids are left behind and give up, she said. Rep. Cherylin Peniston, D-Westminster, said that perhaps both sides were right, and that under the letter of the law, perhaps it isn’t right to pass SB 126. But a civilized society understands that “the rigid letter of the law if not tempered by mercy is not just,” she said.

Rep. Robert Ramirez, R-Westminster, called the bill a “toss-up, detrimental” no matter which way he voted. It’s true that parents violate the law and that this teaches another generation that it’s okay not to follow the law, a premise he said scares him. But “this is a situation we have to do something about,” Ramirez said, noting that his father came from Mexico in the 1960s and had a lot of help getting his citizenship. “We have to get on top of this now…It saddens me no matter how I vote.”

Even those for whom the choice was clearer weren’t happy with it. “I don’t take any joy in opposing this bill, because it affects so many lives,” said Rep. Carole Murray, R-Castle Rock. A legal immigrant, Rep. Janak Joshi, R-Colorado Springs, said the issue is near and dear to his heart. “The United States is respected because it is a country of laws” and it is his solemn duty to make sure the laws are followed, he said.

The state needs to allot “the limited amount of money that the state has to our constituents, and a person who is not a citizen of this country cannot be a constituent,” said Rep. Chris Holbert, R-Parker. “I hope there is no hatred or animosity in this vote,” he said later.

Marianne@coloradostatesman.com