Colorado ASSET bill deemed a real asset to state’s undocumented students (finally!)

The Colorado Statesman

Moments after cheers of “Sí, se puede!” — “Yes, we can!” — filled a packed hall on the Auraria campus on Monday, Gov. John Hickenlooper signed into law a bill to provide in-state tuition rates to undocumented students at state colleges and universities, capping a decade-long effort to pass the legislation.

“Holy smokes,” Hickenlooper said to the hundreds of students, educators, immigration-rights activists and business leaders as he took the stage at the signing ceremony. “Are you guys fired up?”

Thunderous applause and more than a few tearful smiles gave him his answer.

Gov. John Hickenlooper prepares to sign the Colorado ASSET bill as hundreds of supporters look on, including state Reps. Crisanta Duran, Dan Pabon and Angela Williams, all Denver Democrats, on April 29 at the Student Success Center at Metropolitan State University of Denver.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

“Making sure that access is to a quality public education, right, for Colorado’s youth means that there is no limit to your ambitions,” Hickenlooper said. “Every one of you guys can dream every dream you’ve ever wanted or imagined, and if you’re willing to work hard enough, you can do it.”

State Sen. Michael Johnston, D-Denver, a sponsor of the Colorado ASSET bill to provide in-state tuition for certain undocumented students, embraces House Speaker Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver, shortly before Gov. John Hickenlooper signs the bill into law on April 29 in Denver.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

Dubbed the Colorado ASSET bill — short for Advancing Students for a Stronger Economy Tomorrow — this year marked the seventh time similar legislation had been introduced in the Colorado General Assembly. It passed both chambers earlier in the session, finally clearing the House with bipartisan backing, including every Democrat and three Republicans. Colorado becomes the 14th state to grant in-state tuition to students who aren’t in the country legally, following a similar law’s enactment in Oregon last month.

Supporters of the Colorado ASSET bill are gripped with emotion as Gov. John Hickenlooper prepares to sign the measure into law.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

Senate Bill 33 was sponsored by state Sens. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, and Angela Giron, D-Pueblo, and state Reps. Crisanta Duran, D-Denver, and Angela Williams, D-Denver. They were among the lawmakers who crowded the stage inside the Student Success Center at Metro State University, joined by others who voted for the bill this year and past sponsors, including former state Sen. Paula Sandoval, D-Denver, and former state Rep. Val Vigil, D-Thornton, who first steered similar legislation in 2003.

Former state Sen. Paula Sandoval, D-Denver, and Thornton Mayor Pro Tem Val Vigil, a former Democratic state representative, listen to remarks prior to Gov. John Hickenlooper signing a bill to grant in-state tuition to undocumented students in Colorado. Sandoval and Vigil sponsored previous versions of the bill, which failed to pass six times before becoming a law this session.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

“It sends a clear signal that the Great American Dream of the U.S. as a melting-pot nation is still alive and well in Colorado today,” said Metro president Stephen Jordan.

State Sen. Angela Giron, D-Pueblo, a sponsor of the Colorado ASSET bill, says she first ran for office, in part, to support the legislation, which grants in-state tuition to undocumented students in Colorado, at a signing ceremony for the bill.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

“No longer will Colorado students face the hopelessness of feeling that they can’t afford to further their dreams,” said University of Colorado junior Marco Dorado, who told the crowd he had to attend school for a year in New Mexico after graduating from Thornton High School because he “lacked those ever-important nine digits,” a Social Security number.

State Reps. Joe Salazar, D-Thornton, Tracy Kraft-Tharp, D-Arvada, and Angela Williams, D-Denver, await the signing of the Colorado ASSET bill, which provides in-state tuition rates to undocumented students who meet certain criteria. Behind them are House Speaker Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver, Dominick Moreno, D-Commerce City, and Brittany Pettersen, D-Lakewood.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

Dorado, who has lived in the United States since age 3, said the law will ensure that “access to higher education should not be contingent upon good fortune, but, rather, on one’s ability to succeed.”

It was a theme echoed by Johnston, a former principal. He described the derailed dreams of his former students, who watched the bill die in previous sessions and then asked why they had bothered doing well in high school if they couldn’t afford to go on to college.

After signing the Colorado ASSET bill into law, Gov. John Hickenlooper raises one of the signing pens and the document in celebration on April 29 at Metropolitan State University of Denver.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

“They hit a wall and those dreams all disappeared,” he said. “Today, we’re here to tell you that in Colorado the doors are open and the dream is alive.”

In order to qualify for the in-state tuition rates — roughly one-third the cost paid by students who aren’t Colorado residents — students will have to have attended a Colorado high school for three years prior to graduation or receiving a GED and swear that they’ve applied for legal residency or plan to apply as soon as they’re eligible.

Former state Rep. Val Vigil, D-Thornton, shows off a pen used to sign the Colorado ASSET bill into law at a signing ceremony. Vigil, currently the mayor pro tem of Thornton, first introduced similar legislation a decade ago.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

The proposal gained traction over the last year following an executive order issued by President Barack Obama easing the way for undocumented students to stay in the country. Metro trustees also approved their own reduced rates — still higher than in-state rates — for undocumented students last year, a move that drew a rebuke from Colorado Attorney General John Suthers.

Supporters of the Colorado ASSET bill write messages on a poster celebrating the measure, which grants in-state tuition rates to certain undocumented immigrants in Colorado, following a signing ceremony for the law. “Now I can make my parents proud by graduating from college,” reads one inscription.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

But supporters at the bill signing ceremony said that it was persistent storytelling that finally won over a majority of legislators.

“It is your stories that have brought us together — Republicans and Democrats, business and labor, higher ed, public schools — to say that, regardless of the background that you have, regardless of the neighborhood that you live in, that everyone deserves access to economic opportunity and access to the American Dream,” said Duran. “I thank you for not giving up on us — we will not give up on you.”

Gov. John Hickenlooper hands a pen used to sign the Colorado ASSET bill into law to one of the bill’s sponsors, state Sen. Angela Giron, D-Pueblo, at a signing ceremony.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

Giron said she first stepped foot in the State Capitol to support the bill four years ago and that getting it passed was a strong motivation for her initial run for office. “So, in a sense, that piece of legislation changed my life. And I know it’s going to change the lives of many, many people in our state,” she said, her voice raw with emotion.

Legislative analysts estimate the law will mean state colleges and universities will take in an additional $2 million in tuition revenue for the next school year and $3 million the year after that. Although bill supporters predict higher participation — perhaps double what the fiscal analysis assumes — a projected 500 students are expected to enroll under the law next year and another 250 could join them annually in subsequent years.
Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia, who also serves as the executive director of the state Department of Higher Education, said it was a day to savor a hard-won victory.

“Now your hard-won success will allow thousands of capable, ambitious students to pursue a better life for themselves and their families and to make a positive impact on our state and on our nation,” he said. “Tomorrow, we’ll continue to move forward to continue to create opportunities for all those who have the ability and the passion to pursue them.”

Hickenlooper made a similar point, that the law he was about to sign didn’t mark the end of the struggle.

“This is the fist step, right? We’re opening the door, you guys are going to have to do all the work — that’s the way the system works,” he said. “So we’re going to get you into class, we’re going to give you the opportunity, and your hard work is going to complete the transaction. And this first step is going to be a first step toward national immigration reform.”

Vigil, currently serving as Thornton’s mayor pro tem, marveled after the signing that the day had finally arrived, recalling that only two supporters signed up to testify at its first committee hearing, compared with more than 20 in opposition. Another year, he recalled, the committee chair allotted a full 10 minutes to present the bill “because they had to get to lunch.”

After two unsuccessful tries, Vigil didn’t introduce the bill in 2005 — after Democrats had taken the majority in the House and retained it in the Senate — saying later that Democratic leadership had discouraged him from pursuing it. The next year, he lost a Senate primary to state Sen. Lois Tochtrop, D-Thornton, who hammered Vigil for sponsoring the ASSET bill, among other policy differences.

“It was never about me,” Vigil said. “It was always about the students.”

He said he plans to follow the students who take advantage of the tuition rates and expects to be attending some college graduations in four years.

Ernest@coloradostatesman.com