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Statesman Journal: Tuition equity bill goes to Senate
Author: Peter Wong
Posted: February 25, 2013

Read the original article in the Statesman Journal here.

In-state tuition for immigrant students without documents, which made it through the Oregon House by a big vote Friday, drew differing reactions from participants in the long-running debate.

“I can finally go home, look my parents in the eye and say, ‘Mom and Dad, I can go to a four-year college,’” said Hugo Nicolas, a Chemeketa Community College student who was one of many students present in the House gallery for the vote.

“It means more freedom for me — and more responsibility,” said Nicolas, who testified last week for passage of House Bill 2787. “So I’m going to have to work harder to shoulder my investment.”

A 2011 graduate of McNary High School, Nicolas hopes to transfer to the University of Oregon, where he plans to study economics and Chinese.

Victor Mena was able to transfer from Portland Community College to Portland State University, where he is studying criminal justice and hopes to join the Navy.

“I grew up here ever since I was 3,” said Mena, whose change of visa allowed him to attend Portland State. “Maybe tuition equity does not affect me anymore, but it will definitely affect a lot of other potential students.”

The 38-18 vote moved the bill to the Senate, where Jim Ludwick of McMinnville, a spokesman for Oregonians for Immigration Reform, said, “it’s likely to pass — they’ve got the numbers.”

The Senate passed similar bills in 2003 and 2011, but the House let them die without a vote. Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, is the chief Senate sponsor of the current bill.

“They are cowards using children as their shields to get something like this through,” Ludwick said after the vote. “This is just a denigration of the value of citizenship.”

Ludwick said immigrant students without legal presence can attend state universities now at out-of-state rates, which are three or four times higher than in-state rates that are partly subsidized by the state.

Although the bill does not make them eligible for state grants, Ludwick said, “Does anyone doubt that is the next step?”

The bill would allow state universities to charge in-state tuition if students meet specified conditions, including five years in U.S. schools and three in Oregon, graduation from high school or its equivalent in Oregon, and proof of intent to seek citizenship or legal status in the United States.

“They did not choose to come here; they were brought here,” said Rep. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland, the bill’s floor manager. “They have no other country to go to, but they have plenty to offer this state. Unfortunately, they have become collateral damage of this country’s immigration debate.”

The bill was backed by the Oregon University System, student and immigrant-rights groups, and the state’s major business associations.

“It brings hope to current and former students in my hometown,” said Rep. Betty Komp,D-Woodburn, whose House district is the only one in the 2010 Census to have a majority of racial and ethnic minorities.

Rep. John Huffman, R-The Dalles, said critics’ arguments that the university system would lose income from out-of-state tuition rates are wrong: these immigrant students are not attending and paying now. “You can’t lose something you don’t already have,” he said.

The House, on a party-line vote, defeated a Republican-backed substitute that would have set an expiration date, limited in-state tuition to those already here on the date it takes effect, and required students to be enrolled in a federal program for delayed deportations.

“It holds the university system to the same standard that all of our employers must comply with,” said Rep. Gene Whisnant,R-Sunriver.

The state bill would not by itself confer the authority for students to seek work permits in the United States.

But under a program of delayed deportations approved by President Barack Obama last year for those who arrived illegally in the United States as children, known by its acronym DACA, some participants are eligible for work permits. The state bill would recognize participation in the federal program as their proof of intent to seek legal status.

Five Republicans, including Rep. Vicki Berger of Salem, joined 33 Democrats to pass the bill.

Among those voting for it were Democratic Reps. Joe Gallegos of Hillsboro and Jessica Vega Pederson of Portland. Republican Rep. Sal Esquivel of Medford voted no.

Twelve other states, including Washington and California, have similar laws. A federal Dream Act — which passed the U.S. House in 2010 but died after a filibuster threat in the Senate — could become part of federal immigration legislation in the works.

Gov. John Kitzhaber, who is en route to Washington, D.C., for a conference, said he looks forward to signing the bill.

“By removing roadblocks to their post-secondary education, we open new opportunities to them and the opportunity for our state to capitalize on the investment we've made in these students through the K-12 system,” he said in a statement.