In a time of ever-increasing college tuition costs, state lawmakers will debate — once again — whether Connecticut residents who are undocumented immigrants should be allowed to pay the same reduced in-state tuition as other residents.
Last year, Connecticut Gov. M. Jodi Rell vetoed a measure calling for such an expansion of the in-state cost after the bill passed the legislature with no Republican support. She said at the time that, despite feeling sympathetic to the cause, she felt compelled to oppose the bill because the immigrants who it would have benefited were in the country illegally.
The Hartford Courant reported last week that a spokesman for Rell said the governor’s position on this year’s bill would depend on the bill’s specifics.
This year’s House bill, offered by Rep. Felipe Reinoso (D-130), which is similar to last year’s, would apply to all colleges in Connecticut, while an alternative measure proposed by New Haven Sen. Martin Looney would apply only to community colleges, in what may be a necessary incremental step, supporters of the bills said.
Proponents of equalizing tuition costs argue that the issue should be considered as separate from the national immigration debate and that, as state residents, immigrants deserve the lower tuition costs as much as do others in the Nutmeg State. The state should not hinder motivated and capable members of its future workforce from pursuing their education after investing in them during their K-12 educations, these proponents argued.
But opponents both in and outside of the legislature said while they sympathize with students who may have been too young at the time to remember immigrating, they think the state should not reward their parents for immigrating illegally, nor should it invest in the education of students who may leave the state or country someday.
Although Reinoso estimated that perhaps 200 current students would benefit from the bill, the aid to individuals would be substantial.
In New Haven, for example, Southern Connecticut State University charges out-of-state students $8,158 total in tuition and fees per semester, while residents pay only $3,950. At the community-college level, out-of-state Gateway Community College students are charged $4,222 and in-state students pay $1,414.
“I know of many cases, circumstances, of [undocumented] students who are intending and aspiring to pursue their education,” Reinoso said. “What I want is a well-educated individual, someone who will help our state, someone who will bring prosperity in [the form of income] taxes to our state. The business community is crying out for well-educated workers.”
Although he said he knows his personal experiences are anecdotal, he said of those students he knows pursuing higher education, none intends to return to Mexico — a concern expressed by opponents of the bills. Many are already in the process of becoming citizens, a procedure he said can take up to a decade, and thus are being penalized even as they seek legal status, he said.
Others he knows, Reinoso added, are returning from fighting in Iraq and thus have already demonstrated their devotion to the United States.
Rep. Vincent Candelora (R-86), meanwhile, said his principal concerns are legal. He pointed to a federal law — 8 U.S.C. section 1623 — that prohibits illegal aliens from being “eligible on the basis of residence within a State … for any postsecondary education benefit” unless “a citizen or national of the United States is eligible for such a benefit … without regard to whether the citizen or national is … a resident” of that state.
“Potentially, all U.S. citizens could get in-state tuition,” Candelora said. “It would effect conceivably 200 illegal immigrants, but you are exposing our entire [system] to giving reduced tuition rates to everybody.”
But the meaning of that federal law has been debated in other states.
Ten states, including California and New York, have provisions similar to those proposed in Connecticut. According to the Web site of the National Immigration Law Center — an organization dedicated to serving low-income immigrants and their family — lawsuits filed in California and Kansas against the provisions have proven unsuccessful.
The states’ statutes are all written so that even if a citizen no longer meets the residency restrictions, he can qualify for lower tuition, provided he has attended and graduated from a state high school, the Web site reports.
In Massachusetts, then-Gov. Mitt Romney vetoed a similar measure in 2004, and the legislation has since failed to pass, although the current governor, Deval Patrick, is searching for a non-legislative means to institute the proposal, the Boston Globe reported in January.
Candelora also said he thinks it is a terrible precedent to allow residents who do not necessarily pay state taxes to receive benefits. Some immigrants may be working for sub-minimum-wage jobs and may be paid under the table in cash and therefore not pay income taxes, he explained.
But if they are gainfully employed, Candelora said, they must be lying about their immigration status and committing “multiple felonies” in the process.
The issue has also become tied up in the larger debate about immigration in the state, which is serving as a talking point for the bill’s detractors.
After the Hartford Courant included a poll with an article about the legislation on its Web site, local anti-illegal-immigration activist Dustin Gold — founder of the Community Watchdog project — sent an e-mail Friday to his group’s mailing list urging people to vote against the legislation in the poll.
“Please read this pole and vote ‘No,’” the e-mail read. “Legislators will read it.”
It also asked people to tune in to Candelora’s radio discussion of the issue later that day.
As of Monday night, about 90 percent of the approximately 1,100 respondents to the unscientific poll had voted “no,” and Gold said he is happy with the results and that he hopes his e-mail helped drive the poll results.
Gold said he hopes the legislation will provide an opportunity for Republicans to attach amendments that deal with other aspects of immigration reform, but he did not provide specific details.
Although he said he does not want the legislation to pass, he said the debate over the bill could still provide the chance for opponents to propose their own reforms.
One New Haven representative, Pat Dillon EPH ’97 (D-92), said she had heard some colleagues discuss legislation that would deny state funds to any city that provides an identity card to residents without regard to immigration status. New Haven is the only city in Connecticut to fit that description.
Dillon, a member of the Higher Education and Employment Advancement Committee, who supported the legislation last year, said she thinks the last bill got unfairly caught up in a national debate about border security. Last year, she said, the bill was filibustered in committee and never came up for a vote — and was only later added and passed as an amendment to another bill by the full legislature.
“I’m not sure people understood the bill,” she said, noting that the bill simply would have provided regular state benefits to residents who went to local schools and paid local taxes. “There seemed to be [the impression] that we are giving them something for free.”
She said she is in favor of incremental steps — such as the bill focusing on community colleges — if that is what it takes to pass the legislation.