Immigrant tuition benefit pushed in Colorado |

Immigrant tuition benefit pushed in Colorado

DENVER, Colorado ” The debate over offering in-state college tuition to undocumented immigrants is making its way through the state Capitol again, and this time supporters say they have the muscle of Colorado’s business community to get a bill to the governor’s desk.

It’s the fourth time this decade Colorado’s Legislature has taken up the issue, which crosses party lines. Democratic Sen. Chris Romer, the bill’s sponsor, said he hopes lawmakers see it as an educational and economic matter instead of an immigration issue.

Ten states have passed legislation since 2001 granting in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants who meet certain requirements. Those states include California, Illinois, Kansas, Nebraska, New York, New Mexico, Utah, Washington, Oklahoma and Texas. New Jersey has tried several times.

“I think they got there because the business community realized that they needed to overcome the shortsightedness that having uneducated children is good for anybody,” Romer, from Denver, said of states offering the benefit.

Under Romer’s bill, in-state tuition would extend to students who graduate from a state high school ” or receive an equivalency diploma ” and attended a high school in Colorado for three years.

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Colorado Springs Republican Sen. David Schultheis, a strong critic of illegal immigration, said he thinks the bill will be approved.

“I think that we’re strongly Democratically controlled here, and the desire will be to move this right though, which angers me because I don’t think the citizens of Colorado would vote for this if we gave them the chance,” he said.

Schultheis said he’s received many e-mails and phone calls against the proposal.

Brenda Bautsch, a policy associate with the National Conference of State Legislatures, said opponents of similar legislation argue that the tuition benefit rewards illegal behavior and that students won’t be able to get jobs anyway because they’re in the country illegally.

Bautsch said states that passed the legislation require students sign affidavits stating they’re trying to get legal residency. Romer’s bill doesn’t have that provision.

Supporters argue that costs have not increased and that school revenue has grown because students who otherwise wouldn’t attend college are paying tuition.

The Denver-based Bell Policy Center, a think tank supporting Romer’s bill, says about 100 Colorado businessmen back the bill as a way to stimulate the state’s economy. One of them is Colorado Rockies co-owner Dick Monfort, who is also chairman of the board of trustees at the University of Northern Colorado.

“When you explain it, it’s not like it’s a complete burden on society. It’s the opposite of that,” Monfort said.

Romer’s bill is scheduled to be heard by the Education Committee on Feb. 25.

Half the states with the tuition benefit have tried to repeal the law, Bautsch said.

Kansas courts have tossed out a challenge that argued state legislation violated federal law. A California appeals court is hearing a lawsuit by 42 students who say because they were from out of state they paid more than undocumented students.

Other states took a more proactive approach. In 2006, Arizona voters overwhelmingly passed a law barring undocumented students from getting in-state tuition, state-funded scholarships, fee waivers and other financial help from the state’s public universities and community colleges.

North Carolina’s community college system flatly denies enrollment to undocumented students.

By requiring that illegal immigrants attend and graduate from state high schools or obtain equivalency diplomas, states can get around federal regulations barring undocumented immigrants from benefits U.S. citizens can’t receive. In other words, according to federal law, if an undocumented immigrant gets in-state tuition, so should any U.S. citizen outside of Colorado, Bautsch said.

Romer wouldn’t say whether any Republicans support his legislation. The last time Colorado lawmakers took up the issue was in 2005, when Democrats joined Republicans in killing a bill by postponing until the Legislature adjourned.

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