DENVER– The Capitol rotunda echoed with boisterous cheering and clapping of several hundred proponents for a bill introduced Tuesday to grant illegal immigrants in-state tuition rates at public universities and colleges.
“It’s official – Senate Bill 33!” announced state Sen. Angela Giron (D-Pueblo), a prime sponsor of the measure assigned to the Senate Education Committee.
“My God, what a crowd!” exclaimed Giron in response to thundering applause, shouts and whistles.
“It’s a long time coming,” said Giron “And I for one am a believer in the lucky number seven.”
Unlike six previous bills that failed – the measure sponsored by 31 Democrat legislators is expected to sail through the state House and Senate with or without Republican support. Though Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper asked for bi-partisan approved bills, he endorsed in-state tuition for undocumented students during his State of the State address last week.
“We want to make sure that all qualified Colorado high school graduates are eligible to pay in-state tuition,” said Giron.
According to the bill, in-state tuition would be awarded to students who have either attended a public or private high school for three years prior to graduation or earned a general equivalency diploma (GED) in Colorado.
In addition, the students must be admitted to a state college or university and provide an affidavit stating that they have applied for legal residency in the United States or plan to apply in the future.
The press conference included celebratory speeches by Democrats state Sen. Mike Johnston and state Reps. Crisanta Duran and Angela Williams, all of Denver, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, Metro State University President Stephen Jordan, educator Dorian DeLong and several students.
Known as ASSET (Advancing Students for a Stronger Economy Tomorrow), the bill was hailed by Democrats as a path to expand Colorado’s workforce with educated and skilled graduates.
“Colorado must stop importing its educated workforce, and instead start educating our own students if our economy is to grow,” declared Giron.
Williams said the policy will “remove institutional barriers” and allow students to “have an inside track on the jobs produced in our growing economy.”
Republican opponents, such as state Sen. Steve King (R-Grand Junction), have argued that the bill sets up the illegal immigrant students for failure. Despite gaining a higher education, they cannot be legally employed without legal status.
Giron countered that many illegal students are seeking “lawful presence” and working their way through the immigration system, “as complicated and dysfunctional as that is.”
“This nation must take a look at its immigration system and realize just how broken it is and how we must fix it,” said Hancock.
Under the terms of a federal law enacted during Democrat President Bill Clinton’s term, illegal aliens must return to their country of origin to apply for a visa, and remain outside the United States for a specified period of time before they can apply to legally re-enter the country.
But that is slated to change thanks to a new rule promulgated by the Obama administration, which would allow somewhere around 1 million illegal aliens to cut to the proverbial front of line in their quest to gain permanent legal residency inside the United States.
In March, illegal immigrants deemed eligible will be allowed to apply for a ”waiver” while living in this country, and at be permitted to return briefly to their home country to obtain visa within a few days or weeks — evading the legal requirement barring their immediate re-entry.
It is the second of two controversial immigration-related rules issued by the Obama Administration in the last year that could together allow as many 2 million of the estimated 11 million illegal aliens in the country to sidestep existing immigration laws. The first Obama rule, designed to block the deportation of younger illegal immigrants, was issued last summer and prompted criticism from many lawmakers.
In response to criticism that Obama usurped Congressional power, the president intimated that he plans to encourage Congress to pass an act that would grant legal status to about 11 million illegal immigrants. That would require abolishing some provisions of the current immigration laws.
Senate Bill 33 proponents hope Congress reforms federal immigration laws in the future. In 2010, Congress did not approve the so-called DREAM Act (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) that sought to give legal status to illegal immigrants under the age of 35 – and the opportunity of citizenship.
“It is unwise and unjust to punish children because their parents wanted a better life for them and made the decision to bring them to this country,” said Hancock.
Unknown is the economic impact of ASSET on Colorado’s higher education facilities. A similar bill last year estimated that 500 illegal students would take advantage of the lower tuition – but not in-state tuition – than rates charged to out-of-state students.
Jordan, who bucked state government by setting in-state tuition last year for illegal immigrants attending Metro State University, said Tuesday that 258 have enrolled for the spring semester – more than half the 500 statewide estimate.
The Colorado ASSET website provides links to the waiver application and guidelines, but some people are not convinced this paves the way for legal immigration. For example, there is no set time frame for the duration of a visa – and that could impact the process of obtaining long-term legal status.
Christine Mastin, an immigration attorney and former Republican candidate for the House District 3 seat held by state Rep. Daniel Kagan (D-Greenwood Village), said that the waiver initiated by Obama “is like a Band-Aid.”
“It was a way to placate the Latino vote” during the election, said Mastin. “But, it’s a disservice.”
Senate Bill 33 would overturn part of a state law enacted by a Democrat-controlled legislature in 2006 that imposed a far-reaching ban on public benefits for illegal immigrants.