Immigrant tuition bill clears Legislature

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After several unsuccessful attempts over a 10-year period, a bill that would allow undocumented immigrant students to pay in-state tuition rates at Colorado colleges and universities has finally been passed by the General Assembly.

The passage of Senate Bill 33 by the House of Representatives on March 8 was met with applause in the House chambers, and, in the case of 16-year-old Nadya Gallegos, tears of joy. The Westminster High School student’s family immigrated to the country illegally when she was a child.

“I’m so happy that it passed,” Gallegos said, with tears streaming down her face. “It clears my mind. Because now I have a future and I can pursue my dreams.”

The so-called ASSET bill — Advancing Students for a Stronger Economy Tomorrow — would allow all students to pay in-state tuition rates, so long as they are high school graduates who have attended a Colorado school for at least three years.

Current federal law bars undocumented immigrants from working legally in the United States.

Attempts to pass various versions of the bill have failed. But, this time, it got through — with Republican support, to boot. Three Republican House members voted for ASSET on March 8, joining three GOP senators who had done so on Feb. 25.

“Immigrant children are hungry to succeed and we need them in this country,” said Rep. Kevin Priola, R-Henderson, during a March 5 House floor debate that preceded the final vote.

Priola said he sees immigrant children at church every week who have “futures and bright minds at stake ...”

“I ask anyone who has issues on this bill to attend Mass with me at noon on a Sunday,” Priola said.

Rep. Cheri Gerou, R-Evergreen, who also voted for the bill, said it was not “a Democrat or Republican issue.”

“All I did was vote my conscience,” she said.

Rep. Steve Lebsock, D-Thornton, said his best friend came to this country illegally when she was 2, but “that didn’t make her any less of a person.”

“If a child graduates from a high school in Colorado, they’re a Colorado kid,” Lebsock said. “Colorado kids deserve in-state tuition. That’s what this bill is all about.”

Many Republicans on March 5 argued that it’s wrong for Colorado taxpayers to chip in tuition costs for students who are not legal residents. That’s because undocumented students would be eligible for the same stipend from the state’s College Opportunity Fund as legal residents, under ASSET.

Republicans unsuccessfully tried to tack on an amendment that would put ASSET to the voters.

“Because our taxpayers fund this, I believe our taxpayers deserve the right to vote on this,” said Rep. Amy Stephens, R-Monument.

Republican arguments against the bill prompted an angry response from the bill’s House sponsor.

“I’m frustrated,” said Rep. Crisanta Duran, D-Denver. “There is just an air of arrogance. I’m hearing that the only people who can vote in elections are the only people who pay taxes.”

Duran said Republicans were referring to undocumented immigrants as if they weren’t part of the community.

“It’s those people,” Duran said. “It’s those undocumented people over there. They’re not Coloradans. They’re somebody else.”

Republican Rep. Clarice Navarro of Pueblo joined Priola and Gerou in voting for ASSET on March 8. Republicans Sens. Owen Hill of Colorado Springs, Larry Crowder of Alamosa, and Greg Brophy of Wray voted for the bill on 25.

ASSET now goes to the desk of Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper, who is expected to sign the bill into law.

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