Tuition equality bill ok’d by committee

Whether it’s a real ASSET remains to be seen
The Colorado Statesman

The Advancing Students for a Stronger Economy Tomorrow (ASSET) bill, the centerpiece of immigration reform facing the legislature this year, passed out of the Democratic-leaning Senate Education Committee 4-3 on a party-line vote Thursday, but the fate of the controversial legislation providing tuition equity for undocumented students remains unclear.

Senate Bill 15, introduced by Sens. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, and Angela Giron, D-Pueblo, would create 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 need to submit an affidavit to the college or university stating that they have applied for, or will apply for lawful residential status in the United States.

Sponsors hope that two major differences to similar legislation that was killed last year in committee will compel the Republican-controlled House to back the proposal this year. For one thing, in-state tuition would not be applied to undocumented students. Instead, the separate “standard-rate” category would be created. Johnston says undocumented students in this category would actually pay “substantially” more than the in-state rate, about $2,000 per year.

The other significant difference is that university systems themselves would be allowed to decide whether to opt into the program or not.

“We had a good round of conversations with Republicans last year and the ones we talked to this year appreciate the changes,” Johnston told members of the media prior to the committee hearing on Thursday.

Proponents of the bill have turned their attention to state Rep. Tom Massey, R-Poncha Springs, the only Republican in the legislature to openly support ASSET. As chairman of the House Education Committee, Massey has the power to push the legislation on to the House floor for a vote — that is, if the bill is even assigned to his committee. Supporters are concerned that Republican leadership might send it to a so-called “kill” committee. If the bill makes its way to the House floor, it would be the first time the legislation would receive full debate in both chambers.

Massey says he only supports the bill in its current form; he says he will not support the legislation if it changes.

“We’re going to have to see what it looks like when it finally comes over from the Senate,” Massey said. “Obviously I support it in principle and in concept… I’ll reserve judgment until I see what the final product is.”

ASSET for students and the economy

Proponents argue that tuition equity isn’t just the right thing to do for undocumented students; they say it’s the right thing to do for Colorado’s economy and higher education system. Analysis of the bill’s fiscal impact estimates that 500 undocumented students would take advantage of the new program in the first year and that up to 250 additional students would participate each following year. The estimate is rough because it is impossible to accurately count the number of undocumented students attending schools in Colorado. The new students entering the state’s university systems would pump an estimated $2.8 million in revenue into higher education in the first year, according to the bill’s fiscal note.

But former Congressman Tom Tancredo, a Republican who began his political career in the Colorado statehouse in 1977, questions how many students would actually take advantage of the program. He believes the number is being inflated to bolster support for the proposal.

“I think this is a concocted story of all these students begging to get into college at in-state rates,” said Tancredo, a staunch critic of the nation’s “broken” immigration system. “I’d be fascinated to see exactly how many people are out there attempting to obtain this particular benefit. When you look at graduation rates and then you start narrowing it down to a particular category of people who are here illegally, you say to yourself, ‘I wonder what this is all about? I wonder why there’s such a big push?’”

But students who spoke with tears in their eyes on Thursday tell a very different story. Not many undocumented students actually testified themselves during committee proceedings because in the past their testimony has been fodder for calls to immigration officials. But other students and family members offered their assessments of the problem.

Alejandra Gonzaless, a student who spoke of her 11-year-old undocumented brother’s forthcoming struggle with paying for college, fought back tears during her testimony. She said her sibling’s future is bleak without a real chance of being able to afford college.

“I’m sad to think that opportunities will continue to be taken away from him; I will continue fighting for Colorado ASSET because if it passes, he will see more opportunities to go on with his dreams,” Gonzaless said. “I don’t want to miss out on all that my brother might be able to accomplish if he is able to go to college.”

Another student, Jose Garello Vaes, who has been in the country since he was 4 years old and has applied to receive residency, wants to become a doctor one day. But he says he can’t afford the tuitions to make that dream a reality.

“I have a wall blocking me, preventing me from paying for college,” he said.

Committee member Sen. Scott Renfroe, R-Greeley, cross-examined Vaes, asking the student how he was able to sneak into the country illegally. Renfroe’s line of questioning caused Giron to gasp in shock. She interrupted her colleague, asking Renfroe about the relevance of the question. She advised Vaes not to answer if he didn’t want to. The student said he couldn’t answer the question even if he wanted to.

Renfroe said his questioning really goes to a larger issue. “I think it’s a very valid and huge part of this argument that gets left out of this specific end when we have a bill in front of us, is how this problem started and what our fix is going to be in the future. It’s obvious that our federal government has failed us — both administrations, all administrations, both parties — in how we’ve handled our immigration policy and where we come from to get to where we are today.”

Proponents, however, say the issue is not about immigration policy, noting that it is the federal government which must act with comprehensive reform. Instead, they say the issue is about providing an education to students who are locked into a system that forces them to wait at least a decade before receiving their citizenship. Students should not have to delay their educational experience while they wait for citizenship simply because they can’t afford the tuition rates, they contend.

“What we find so often in so many of these students is that they are already in the pipeline to become citizens, but the average backlog is around 10 years,” explained Johnston, a former high school principal. “I have a former student who applied in seventh grade and he’s just now getting called to a hearing. He got admitted to college and yet he can’t go. I’d rather have him be in college all these years rather than sitting and waiting.”

The issue is about securing Colorado’s economic future, backers of the legislation point out, noting that the state is losing talent to nearby states that have already passed tuition equity bills. In Texas, for instance, Republican Gov. Rick Perry supported a bill providing in-state tuition to undocumented students. Likewise the neighboring state of Kansas has already approved tuition equity. In total, 13 states have passed tuition equity legislation.

“We’ve already invested in their education and we need to realize that investment back …” Giron said in committee. “Failing to educate our students has implications not just on education, but also on our economy as a whole. The more education they achieve, the more money they will earn, the more money they will contribute to our community, the more money they will spend on Colorado’s economy, and once they get legal status, the more they will pay in taxes.”

Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, a member of the Education Committee, became angry when addressing critics of ASSET, noting the economic development impact to the state. Heath said it would be “stupid” not to support what he considers to be commonsense legislation.

“If you just look at this from an economic development standpoint, and I’m trying to take all of the emotion out of this, how stupid can we be… that we’re going to invest all of this money in the best and brightest kids and then send them to Texas, send them to Kansas, send them to Oklahoma, and let them reap the benefits when we so desperately need their skills and their intelligence?” Heath said.

Renfroe fought back, insulted that Heath suggested that critics of the legislation are “stupid.”

“I’m appalled and disappointed in the chair for allowing testimony like that to go forward, and I expect an apology from Sen. Heath to be calling us stupid for how someone might vote on this bill and for seeing something in a different light, and I think that it is completely uncalled for for a senator to use that type of language,” said Renfroe, disappointed that Heath never offered an apology.

Tenacity of the students

Pauline Olvera, secretary of the Colorado Hispanic Republicans, agreed with Renfroe that there are significant concerns to address. She questioned the tenacity of the students, suggesting that instead of working harder to pay for college, they were asking for yet another handout.

“I wonder if there is no consideration for what has been given so far,” testified Olvera. “They’ve been given a free education through 12th grade; free breakfast and lunch through 12th grade; they and their families have received free health care in our country, and the good generous people of America haven’t complained…

“Instead of hearing something to the effect that, ‘I appreciate what I’ve gotten so far, I can pick it up from here, I can take it on myself and I can do this,’ all I hear is, ‘No, I want more, more, more.’ America doesn’t have anymore,” she continued, raising her voice in frustration.

Johnston waited until closing remarks to lash out at critics for suggesting that the students themselves don’t want to work for their college education.

Johnston told the story of a student who is seeking asylum in the United States after his father stood up to the Mexican drug cartel in the Mexican state of Chiapas. The United States federal government has told the student that he must move back to Chiapas while he waits for his asylum hearing, according to Johnston.

“For four years he has been in Chiapas moving from house to house; night to night, trying to make sure that he can wait on the federal government before the drug cartels in Mexico catch him,” Johnston passionately told the committee. The student believes the wait is worthwhile if it means he’ll be able to afford college in America. “And when I talk to him, you know what he says? He says, ‘Mr. Johnston, it would be worth it…’ He’s willing to do what it takes to do it the right way… I don’t think you can tell me that that student lacks tenacity.”

But for committee member Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs, the issue isn’t about tenacity, but one of fairness. He argues that there are plenty of undocumented students who have waited in line, and that it would be unfair to tell future undocumented students that they don’t have to.

As the administrator of Colorado Springs Early Colleges, a tuition-free public charter high school that offers concurrent college courses to any student in the Colorado Springs area, King said there are options for undocumented students, even without tuition equity.

“I have kids that are undocumented,” King acknowledged. “We have tried to figure out ways to help them expedite their citizenship, to do whatever we can to help them be able to legally have a job and do it legally in this country and have an opportunity for when they’re done.”

Sen. Nancy Spence, R-Centennial, pointed out the difficult decision in having to deny undocumented students a chance at affording a college degree, but she questioned the legality of the proposal. She said the decision was personal for her, having recently read Just Like Us, a book about four Mexican girls and their journey living in the United States, written by Helen Thorpe, wife of Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper.

Spence took the issue one step further, questioning what would happen to the students after college. They would likely still be residing in the country illegally, she noted, making legal employment difficult.

“I have to say that some of the voices here today brought me right back into that story,” Spence said, holding back tears as she referenced the book. “My heart goes out to these kids who are in a position of not having an opportunity to get a college education right now… but then I think about what’s at the end of the line for them, and I think that if they graduate from college… then what happens to them?”

Peter@coloradostatesman.com