Undocumented students lose in-state tuition vote, but new bill may rise from the ashes

immigration seal
(image: New Mexico Independent)

Undocumented students and supporters wear shirts declaring what they want to be when they grow up.

High school students erupted in tears in the House Education Committee Monday as Rep. Tom Massey’s, R-Poncha Springs, gavel dropped, ending the life of a bill that would have allowed them to pay instate tuition despite their status as undocumented immigrants. Rep. Robert Ramirez, R-Westminster, said that while he voted against the bill this year he planned on working over the summer to help make changes to ASSET that would make it more palatable to both his constituents and fellow Republicans.


The Republican committee killed the bill on a party-line 7-6 vote. Democrats had thought they might be able to sway one Republican vote. Despite Republican amendments and a room full of undocumented children concerned about their futures, Democrats were wrong. However, they did see some hope as one Republican who voted no Monday, said he could very well be a “yes” next time.

“It breaks my heart to have to do it, today,” Ramirez told the Colorado Independent about his “no” vote on the legislation. “But hopefully in the near future we will be able to make some changes.”

Those changes would come in two forms, he said. Ramirez first explained he would work with bill sponsors, Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, and Rep. Joe Miklosi, D-Denver, to bring the Colorado congressional delegation together on the need for federal immigration reform. Ramirez further said he planned to work over the summer to bring a bill similar to ASSET that would be more palatable to both Republicans and the voters.

Rep. Robert Ramirez, said his vote would be a bad one, no matter how he voted.

“We have to do something and we need to do it soon,” Ramirez said. “That is why I am going to work over this summer to try and take another look at this legislation and take a look at putting some different components in it that would make it more palatable.

“We need to get on board right now on making the difference in getting these kids in school and we need to help them where we can. Unfortunately, today, I had to say ‘no’ to that. But that could change next month, that could change next week,” Ramirez continued. “And if we work this summer like I think we are going to and come back next session — and we get nowhere with the Federal Government– I believe we can build an effort in Colorado to where all Coloradans, all parties,everyone will say, ‘Darn it. It is our responsibility.'”

Democratic sponsors of the bill said they were more than willing to work with Ramirez over the summer to ensure the future passage of the bill.

While Miklosi said he had hoped to get Ramirez’s vote with an amendment that would have postponed instate tuition benefits for undocumented students until a federal Dream Act had been signed into law, he was hopeful talks with the Republican representative would soon foster ways to help students. He said he had spoken with Ramirez about working on a bill this summer and said he didn’t care where that had to be.

Rep. Tom Massey listens to debate. (Boven)

“I will meet with him in Alaska or anywhere else–along with the other sponsors–to try and figure out something that he could be comfortable with. Something that abides the law, creates hope and helps to admit [students],” Miklosi said.

Johnston agreed with Miklosi. He said while he had not talked to Ramirez, he was wholeheartedly behind a bipartisan discussion on creating a bill that would ensure that children, who were brought to this country through no fault of their own, were able to get instate tuition.

“I am always open to change anything that we need to change to make sure kids can go to college.” Johnston said. “I don’t have to be the sponsor, I don’t care what it is called, I don’t care what it does. I just care that kids can go to college.”

SB 126 , or ASSET, would have allowed undocumented students who had attended three years and graduated a Colorado high school, signed an affidavit that they would begin the process of attaining citizenship, and were accepted to a Colorado college to attend that college by paying instate tuition with a catch. They would have to do so without the benefit of the Colorado Opportunity Fund, which subsidizes Colorado residents attending college.  A resident of Colorado receives $62 per credit hour through the fund.

The bill was presented with a focus on its economic benefits to the state and supported by seven chambers of commerce, who saw the bill as providing a more skilled workforce for Colorado businesses.

ASSET was also supported by many of the state’s institutions of higher education, cities, newspapers and Hispanic and Latino advocacy groups. Both former Denver Mayor Frederico Pena and the city’s current Cuban-born Mayor Bill Vidal, among others, testified in favor of the bill.

Students wearing T-shirts proclaiming future goals at ASSET hearing. (Boven)

However, the bill met with hard opposition from Republican committee members who pointed to the fact that an immigrant would be unable to get a job legally in the country after graduating college, a situation that might create false hope, while others commented that defeating the bill would not stop the students from going to school, but simply made it much more expensive.

Those testifying against the bill maintained that an illegal alien is an illegal alien no matter how they got here or their age. It was a chord that resonated with many of the Republican committee members who said their first priority was to govern United States’ citizens under the law.

Rep. Carole Murray, R-Castle Rock,  said the issue is not one that is partisan but instead based on ideology and how one interprets the law. She said while she took no pleasure in voting against the bill it was the law that forced her hand.  She explained that the eyes of justice are blindfolded so that the law is handed out equally no matter a person’s situation and contended that there are consequences for allowing individuals to be treated differently under the law.

“Lady Justice ultimately looks at the law, and not at … the circumstance of [what] their individual realities are,” Murray said. “Look at what is happening in Mexico right now. They are spiraling into lawlessness and the minute we agree that those cases should shape the lay of the law we begin that spiraling. So I will be a no vote on the bill.”

While Democrats urged the bill’s passage and called for Republicans to remember they were on the education committee, the final vote — with a long pause from Ramirez — was to ultimately kill the bill.

Convening in the West Foyer of the Capitol after the vote, students and supporters of the bill consoled one another with what amounted to a close to 40-person group hug. Democrats and others told the students not to give up hope or drop out of school and said this was only a beginning.

Sen. Mike Johnston calls for, and joins in, a group hug with those who would have benefited from ASSET. (Boven)

Had the bill gotten out of committee, it still would have faced a tumultuous time in the full House. Miklosi said they had three or four votes they thought were in play in the House, but those included Ramirez and Rep. Ken Summers, R-Lakewood. Neither of those legislators voted in favor of the bill in committee.

However, like so many bills that come to the House, both Democrats and Republicans said the bill would appear again and perhaps next time under better circumstances.

“If we don’t do something soon, the problem is going to escalate,” Ramirez told a group of reporters after the vote.  “When you have an increasing number of people who feel they have no hope… you create a huge problem for yourselves.”

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