A 2007 legislative attempt to provide in-state tuition rates to undocumented college students died with a veto on the desk of former Gov. M. Jodi Rell. But it is one of the many controversial issues being resuscitated by the legislature this session now that there’s a Democrat in the governor’s office.
A bill to implement Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s budget recommendations on higher education contains language that would provide in-state rates to undocumented students who went to high school in Connecticut and live in the state. That bill is scheduled for a public hearing on March 15.
Rep. Pamela Sawyer, R-Bolton, said last week that the measure would be unfair to the state’s legal residents.
Connecticut has worked hard to build its public higher education institutes into some of the best in the country, she said. As a result, admissions at state’s universities and colleges have already become highly competitive, she said.
She used the University of Connecticut as an example. The school has 23,000 applicants for 3,000 freshmen slots, she said. Of those slots, 1,000 go to out-of-state students, who pay more and bring in money to the school, while the other 2,000 go to in-state students, she said.
“So all those kids that want to come to UConn from this state have a heck of a lot of competition amongst the kids who are naturally born and here with full legal status. That’s competition with a big ‘C,’” she said. “How do I say to those student and parents, ‘oh by the way, we’re going to take those seats away from you and give them to undocumented kids?’”
Sawyer said that while the undocumented applicants may have met academic credentials to attend the school, they haven’t met a national credential—to become citizens or obtain a student visas.
And a fiscal analysis report from 2007 indicated the measure would likely result in a loss of revenue to UConn, which is typically operating at or near its full capacity. But it may benefit the state’s other higher education institutions, which would not have to replace out-of-state paying students, it said.
Western Connecticut State University student Zach Richter said it is unfair to punish students for something their parents might have done.
“Students who are in this country, who were brought in by their parents when they were young, they didn’t chose to break the law. They broke the law by virtue of something that someone else did. So it’s completely unfair to punish them and punish our entire society by not having them as members,” he said.
Those undocumented students have the potential to be some of the next great citizens of this country and it makes sense to try to keep them in the state, he said. And passing the bill would give them an attachment to the community and prevent them from being marginalized, leaving them wanting to go somewhere else, he said.
Richter said he knows some undocumented students and they already face significantly more challenges than your average middle-income student. Some can’t even acquire driver’s licenses, he said.
Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield, D-New Haven, had similar reasons for supporting the bill. Many of the undocumented people who are applying to the state’s colleges have been here almost their entire lives, he said.
“They’re as American as anybody else except for the fact that, by a technicality, they’re not. A lot of them don’t even know they’re not until around the time they try to go to college,” he said.
Holder-Winfield said the concept is a re-imagining of who your neighbors are and what it means to be American as opposed to something else. Many people are acquainted and have no problem with undocumented neighbors until they figure out they were born elsewhere, he said.
“They had no idea. They were good contributing citizens, doing things to help their schools and their communities,” he said.
And the reason in-state tuition costs less than out-of-state tuition is because the state wants to educate the people who live within the boundaries of the state, he said. The reality is that the people are already our neighbors, he said.
“Look I want those people to not have to sneak around, because they will. I want them to not have to resort to doing things to survive that may not benefit my society, because they will. And this is one way to do it,” he said, adding he has a hard time figuring out where the injustice is with the issue.
Sen. Gary LeBeau, D-East Hartford, a former educator, said he could see both sides of the issue. On one hand, allowing them to pay in-state tuition could be perceived as unfair to residents who helped to fund the institutions, he said. But he would also like to see the brightest students learn and want to live in the state, he said.
LeBeau said he hasn’t decided how he will approach the issue this session. In previous years, he said, he has supported similar measures but he noted that a lot has changed recently. The political landscape has changed and so has the public’s perception of undocumented people living in the country. There seems to be growing public outrage with undocumented immigrants, he said.
But Holder-Winfield said that following public opinion polls and legislating in accordance with them isn’t how he operates.
“I operate solely based on what I think is the right thing to do and that gets me in trouble sometimes,” he said. “You learn things in this building that you did not know coming in.”
A public hearing on the bill will be held Tuesday by the legislature’s Higher Education and Employment Advancement Committee.