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High Education and Employment Advancement Committee (Ctnewsjunkie photo)

HARTFORD, CT — Powerful politicians and educational leaders testified Tuesday in favor of bills that would give undocumented immigrant students access to financial aid at Connecticut’s public colleges and universities, but it was testimony of a student who wouldn’t benefit from the legislation that seemed to pack the biggest punch.

“The student body at Storrs strongly believes it is inherently unfair that undocumented students pay into the pool of money for institutional aid yet do not have access to those funds,” Daniel Byrd, the University of Connecticut’s student body president, told Higher Education and Employment Advancement Committee Tuesday.

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Daniel Byrd, University of Connecticut student body president (Ctnewsjunkie photo)

“We believe a vote against this bill is a vote for state sponsored theft. We are literally stealing money from these students,” Byrd told the committee.

Many others also implored the committee to try again — this year — to get the legislation passed.

Julie Kushner, president of the United Auto Workers in Connecticut, told the committee there is an added incentive in getting the legislation passed this year.

She said with the divisiveness surrounding the issue of immigration going on at the national level, Connecticut, by enacting a law allowing these students access to financial aid, “will show what kind of state we really are.”

This the fourth year in a row that these Dreamers are trying to get a bill that would give them access to financial aid at Connecticut’s public colleges and universities. Last year, they were able to get the Senate to approve a similar measure, but the bill got stuck between the two chambers, and the House never voted on it.

On Tuesday, the committee heard testimony on two bills related to the issue: One from Senate President Martin Looney, D-New Haven, a longtime booster of the Dreamers, and another from Gregory Haddad, D-Mansfield, co-chair of the committee.

Haddad said last week while the bill didn’t make it last year that he hopes his fellow legislators feel an “increased moral imperative given what is happening in Washington that dictates to us that we ought to act.”

Mark Ojakian, president of the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities, also testified in favor of the legislation.

“The central mission of the institutions in the CSU system is to provide quality, affordable and accessible higher education to all students,” Ojakian said. “These two bills are an essential part in strengthening that mission and improving our ability to serve all our students equally.

“Our 17 institutions welcome all students regardless of their immigration status, race, age, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, nationality, or physical disability,” Ojakian added.

“This is an issue about fairness and equity,” Ojakian said. He called it an “injustice” that Dreamers pay into a fund that other students can draw from to pay for their education, but they can’t.

Ojakian said other states allow undocumented students to receive funds, including California, New Mexico, Minnesota, Texas, and Washington.

Ojakian added: “These students are Connecticut residents, who have graduated from Connecticut high schools. They are our friends, our neighbors, our family members who have been part of our community for all their lives.”

Looney also testified in front of the committee.

“Many of these students have lived in our state virtually their entire lives. Many have no memory of life anywhere else except in Connecticut,” Looney said.

Looney added that students who obtain degrees in Connecticut “are more likely to build careers in Connecticut and make a lifetime commitment to remaining and working in this state.”

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman submitted a written statement to the committee — urging them to back both bills.

“Education and career preparation are some of the best tools we have to combat poverty. And, access to affordable higher education is one path into the middle class for millions across the country,” Malloy and Wyman said.

“To deny undocumented students access to affordable higher education goes against the very core of who we are. It is penny wise and pound foolish. That is why we have long been advocates for doing whatever we can to help hardworking students — regardless of immigration status — succeed,” the joint statement continued.

“We know our state stands to benefit by welcoming them, along with their talents, to our communities and to our schools.”

Also testifying in front of the committee in favor of both bills was Wayne Locust, vice president of enrollment and planning at UConn.

“The University of Connecticut supports all of our students and seeks to ensure that a quality, affordable education remains accessible regardless of a student’s immigration of economic status.

“We therefore are in full support of legislation that would expand eligibility and access to student financial aid to undocumented students,” Locust said.

Locust said UConn officials do not believe expanding the financial aid pool to include Dreamers would have major implications on the university’s aid budget.

One of the students who submitted written testimony to the committee was Evelin Garcia, a senior at Western Connecticut State University, who was brought to the United States at age 3 from Mexico, and who grew up in Danbury.

“While I am graduating in May, my journey to obtain my bachelor’s degree has not been easy. However, with diligence I strove to continue my education by excelling academically, networking, volunteering, working three jobs, and saving all I could to make that goal a reality.”

She asked the committee to support the legislation “to send a bold message that our state and our legislators stand against hate and support the dreams of all our students.”