An effort to make it easier for illegal immigrants to go to college in Colorado is finished, at least for this year. The bill died in a House committee on a party line vote yesterday.
As lawmakers debated reducing tuition for undocumented students, they did it in front of an audience of the people most affected. Young people wearing homemade tee-shirts with slogans like Future Teacher and Future Chef filled the hearing room. None testified, fearing that giving their name and address on the hearing forms could expose them to immigration authorities. But a young woman named Sonya says the fight hits home. Sonya is taking classes at Metro State College. In her final year of college, she was shocked to find out she didn't qualify for in-state tuition.
SONYA: "You just feel so devastated you know, something that you've been looking forward to your whole life, that you've been led up to thinking your whole life: the American Dream, the higher education, and now, the same system that told you this is now taking it back."
Sonya says it may take her five or six years to earn enough money to finish school. Currently, undocumented students who graduate from Colorado high schools have to pay the out-of-state tuition rate if they want to go to a state institution. Bill backers say that is just too expensive for most of their families. The bill would have allowed those students to pay less tuition, although still more than the in-state rate Coloradans pay.
Supporters also argued for the bill on economic arguments. Mario Carrera is with the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
cARRERA: We know education levels effect what we spend as a country on crime, on health care, and social services."
However, bill opponents point out that even with a college degree, undocumented immigrants can't lawfully work in the United States. And opponents say lower tuition rewards parents who came to the country illegally.
There was also the question of cost. State analysts believe only a few hundred undocumented students a year would take advantage of the lower tuition rate, which wouldn't add much to institutions' expenses. But Education Committee chair Tom Massey says he believes it would have an impact.
MASSEY: "You know, at this point we just can't afford to add to our cost burden in delivering to higher education to our student base in the state as it stands in our state now."
After last night's vote, supporters were quickly vowing to bring the effort back next year. And they might get some unexpected help. Republican Robert Ramirez voted against the bill, but says he's open to supporting a similar measure down the road, with some changes.
RAMIREZ: "The merits of the bill, it's going in the right direction. We need to do something and we need to do it soon, before this gets out of hand."
Ramirez says first he wants to focus on trying to get Colorado's entire Congressional delegation to push for federal immigration reform.
Yesterday's six-hour hearing may mark the final major immigration battle of this session. Republican lawmakers ran several bills earlier this spring trying to tighten up identification requirements and immigration enforcement, but all of those met their end in the Democratic Senate.