After extensive and energetic debate, a bill which would allow undocumented students who attended high school in Colorado access to in-state tuition, passed second hearing in the Senate in a 20-13 vote. The bill passed on party lines.
If the Colorado Asset bill passes the House, Colorado would follow 12 other states in enacting in-state tuition legislation for undocumented students.
Bill cosponsor Sen. Angela Giron, D-Pueblo, opened the debate with an emotional call for her fellow lawmakers to support the legislation that she has been vocally pushing since before she began her first year as a freshman senator representing Pueblo.
“This is the issue that helped persuade me to run for Senate,” Giron told the Senate floor. “I come from a community where high school graduation parties rival wedding parties… but sadly, for many the dream of education cannot extend past high school.”
Following Giron’s remarks, fellow co-sponsor Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, presented the economic and fiscal reasoning behind the bill. He argued that the bill would not cost taxpayers significantly, but rather would increase revenue for higher education by increasing enrollment. Under the bill, undocumented Colorado students would not have access to the state subsidized Colorado Opportunity Fund and so there would be no direct state subsidy to undocumented students, supporters say.
“If we are investing in these kids’ K-12 education, then it doesn’t make sense to close the door before they can get a university education,” said Johnston.
Conservative senators countered by saying that the bill would in fact cost taxpayers money, and that it would incentivize more people to illegally cross the border if they knew their children could receive access to a Colorado university education. Republican senators also argued that until federal law is changed, without legal status the undocumented beneficiary students would still have no employment opportunities even if they graduated from a Colorado university.
Sen. Ted Harvey, R-Highlands Ranch, argued that the bill was misplaced compassion, and that it would be unfair for Colorado taxpayers. “Is it compassionate to reach into the pocketbooks of struggling Americans to pay for the education of illegal immigrants?”
Republican Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs, argued that in-state tuition fees do not cover the costs of each university student and that the proposed legislation would place an unfair burden on Colorado’s financially distressed higher education system. In many Colorado universities, in-state tuition fees only cover half of the true costs of educating each student.
Johnston told the Colorado Independent that the Republican fiscal argument against the bill is not well substantiated because it does not take into account that adding the estimated 250 beneficiary students spread around state universities wouldn’t incur substantial extra operational costs for the schools. Rather, he maintains, while pointing to success stories in other states with similar legislation, that it would boost the universities economically by increasing tuition revenue.
“Just because you add a few extra students to each university, doesn’t mean that will increase the lighting bill or the university will necessarily have to hire new teachers,” said Johnston. “But it does mean the universities will see an increase in revenue from the tuition rates… Texas implemented in-state tuition and saw a $27.2 million annual increase in tuition and fees at their colleges and universities.”
Supporting his line of reasoning, Johnston pointed to the multiple colleges -including UNC, Metro State, DU, and Colorado’s community colleges – that have come out in support of the bill. According to Johnston, so far, there has been no open opposition to the bill from any Colorado university.
Colorado Immigrants Rights Coalition Organizer Julie Gonzales said that she was impressed by the powerful rhetoric and moral questions that arose in the debate but was disappointed with the Colorado Republicans for being preoccupied only with federal immigration policy and using it as excuse to block state immigration reform. “[GOP Senators] seemed to miss the point that the debate was about the ASSET bill.”
Following the vote, Giron, who was visibly struggling to hold her composure after emotional floor testimonials, said the bill would face its true challenge in the House. “We will make it out of the Senate, but it doesn’t yet feel very celebratory,” said Sen. Giron. “It’s really all about the [House] committee.”