Dem legislators set on ASSET bill this year

The Colorado Statesman

The seventh time could be a charm, backers of the proposed Colorado ASSET bill say.

If Democratic legislators get their way this year — and their solid majorities in both chambers make that exceedingly likely — Colorado high school graduates who aren’t legal residents, but who meet certain other criteria, will soon be able to pay in-state tuition at state colleges and universities.

“I’m certainly a believer — are you? — in the lucky number seven,” said sponsor state Sen. Angela Giron, D-Pueblo, before a boisterous crowd in the Capitol’s west foyer on Tuesday, noting that this was the seventh year that legislation like this year’s bill has been introduced.

“This is the year we keep our families together. This is the year we recognize our earned return on our investment in our young people in the state of Colorado,” says Denver Mayor Michael Hancock during a rally supporting the introduction of Colorado ASSET legislation on Jan. 15 at the Capitol in Denver. Flanking him are bill supporters state Rep. Crisanta Duran, D-Denver, Metro State University President Stephen Jordan, state Rep. Angela Williams, D-Denver, and House Speaker Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

“We’ve invested in these students’ education, and we are going to continue that investment,” she said. “We all know that Colorado must stop importing our educated workforce and instead start educating our own students if our economy is going to grow.”

Senate Bill 13-033 — dubbed Colorado ASSET, short for “Advancing Students for a Stronger Economy Tomorrow,” a state-level version of the federal DREAM Act, which stands for “Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors” — would grant in-state tuition to illegal immigrants provided they have attended a state public or private high school for at least three years, have a Colorado high school diploma or GED, and commit to seeking legal status. The bill was assigned to the Senate Education Committee.

Bill sponsor state Sen. Michael Johnston, D-Denver, says Colorado ASSET will make it easier for undocumented high school graduates to do more than flip burgers during a rally for the legislation on Jan. 15 at the State Capitol as state Rep. Crisanta Duran, D-Denver, and Metro State University President Stephen Jordan look on.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

Majority House Republicans killed a watered-down version of the bill — it would have established a middle tuition rate, lower than out-of-state but higher than in-state — in the last two sessions, but Democrats weren’t all on board and shot it down in previous years when they controlled the legislature.

Members and supporters of the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition, including state Sen. Michael Johnston, D-Denver, pose for a snapshot on the rotunda steps at the State Capitol following a Jan. 15 press conference supporting the Colorado ASSET bill.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

Republicans are chaffing at the absence of the concessions that had been in the bill they had earlier rejected.
Rep. Brian DelGrosso, R-Loveland, said his caucus was bothered by the more expansive version of the legislation introduced this week, especially in light of the remarks made by House Speaker Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver, launching the session.

“If you listen to the speaker’s opening day message, he talked about the Three C’s, and two of the three C’s were collaboration and cooperation, working across the aisle. That’s the one thing he brings up on opening day and all of a sudden this bill is ‘take it or leave it,’” DelGrosso said.

Decrying the bill as an insufficient, state-level “patchwork” response to a federal immigration mess, he went on to raise perennial objections to the proposal, which is in place in 13 other states.

“Should state tax dollars be going to fund folks that are potentially here illegally? Where are we going to come up with the money to pay for this? Those are still issues we and constituents here in Colorado want to hear the answers to,” DelGrosso said, maintaining that ASSET raises questions of fairness. “We’re giving some kind of a benefit to folks who are here illegally but not giving the same kind of benefit to folks who are here legally,” he said, referring to citizens who don’t qualify for state-subsidized, in-state tuition.

Still, though he declined to offer specific suggestions to Congress, he lauded efforts to deal with immigration at the federal level, which President Barack Obama has labeled a top priority in his second term.

“I think there needs to be a path to citizenship,” DelGrosso told The Colorado Statesman. “The reality is, we’ve got a lot of folks that are here illegally — what are we going to do with them, what kind of path to citizenship are we eventually going to give them? That needs to be addressed. We can’t just continue to bury our heads in the sand and pretend that that’s not an issue that needs to be addressed.”

He added that federal action could “potentially change our minds about what’s going on” when it comes to proposals such as ASSET.

Backers of the legislation are pitching the proposal as much as an economic development tool as a piece of immigration reform, though several officials invoked civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., whose birthday coincided with the bill’s introduction.

“Dr. King said to each and every one of us, ‘My only hope and dream for our young people is that you are able to exercise your inalienable right to dream, to lead and succeed’”, said Denver Mayor Michael Hancock. “Today, with Senate Bill 33, we say, ‘Happy birthday, Dr. King,’ and we celebrate your goal of providing the opportunity to dream and succeed.”

Hancock said it was a matter of economic common sense to encourage state residents to pursue higher education, regardless of their citizenship status.

“It is unwise and unjust to punish children because their parents wanted a better life for them and made a decision to bring them to this country without their permission,” he said. “It is equally unwise and unjust to spend thousands of our tax dollars to educate a child, only to refuse that child the opportunity to make more of his or her life.”

Denver Councilman Paul Lopez said after the rally that he anticipated the bill would have a “tremendous impact” in his West Denver district. “What society in modern day is crazy enough to reject educating its people?” he asked.

“It’s about time that this passes,” he said. It’s been a political football — these kids are not political footballs, they have futures, they’re human beings who live in this state, they’re as American as apple pie.”

State Sen. Michael Johnston, D-Denver, a former high school principal and one of the bill’s prime sponsors, said he hoped the legislature would get the bill to the governor’s desk quickly.

“I’ve been in this situation when I was a high school principal and this bill failed on May 10, the last day of the session,” he said. “I had kids come up to me in tears and said, ‘Mr. Johnston, why did you make me do all this work, and now here I am busting my behind to graduate and now it doesn’t matter?’ I want kids to get the message in February, when they are three credits away and they’re doing every thing they can to make it to the finish line, and hey, here we’ve got your back on this, so fight it out to the finish line. The earlier we send this signal, the more kids respond.”

Johnston said he didn’t want to speculate about Senate Republicans who might support the bill but said he’s had some across-the-aisle conversations in recent days, and “it’s a very different conversation than it was last year. Last year, it felt like there was a very clear stance. This year, people are thinking through it and it feels more like a practical approach. I’m optimistic we’ll have some support.”

Dozens of students surrounded lawmakers and officials at the press conference, including Cesiah Guadarrama, an honors student at Westminster High School whose parents brought her to Colorado when she was 6.

“It has been challenging to grow up as an undocumented student with limited resources and without being able to take opportunities. However, I have never let that stop me from reaching my dreams. I want to be able to hand my parents a college diploma one day and tell them that their sacrifices have not been in vain,” said Guadarrama, who is set to graduate this spring.

“Colorado ASSET would be the best graduation gift that anyone could ever give me,” she added.

Ernest@coloradostatesman.com