The heated debate over whether to allow undocumented immigrants to attend public colleges and universities at the same tuition rate other Connecticut residents pay could soon reignite at the state legislature.
Under a bill introduced by state Rep. Felipe Reinoso, D- Bridgeport, Connecticut students living in the country illegally would pay in-state tuition rates at all state public colleges and universities, rather than the pricier out-of-state rates they must pay now.
A similar bill was passed by the state legislature along partisan lines last year after a hard-fought debate, but Gov M. Jodi Rell vetoed the measure.
Another bill, introduced by Senate Majority Leader Martin M. Looney, D- New Haven, takes a more limited approach, offering in-state tuition rates to undocumented immigrants at only the state's community colleges. Looney, who supported the more expansive bill last year, said the pared down measure would cost less but still help many low-income families and establish a foothold on the issue.
"It seemed to me that having the bill last year be vetoed, doing something that would be somewhat more incremental is a way to renew the debate on a more limited scale," he said.
A spokesman for Rell said the governor's position would depend on what form the legislation takes.
The debate over the issue last year drew emotional arguments from both sides. Supporters of the proposal described bright students who had grown up in Connecticut but were effectively shut out from affordable higher education because their parents brought them into the country illegally as children. Opponents said in-state tuition rates would reward breaking the law and would take limited spots at state universities from legal residents. The bill passed the House and Senate without the support of a single Republican legislator.
In vetoing the bill, Rell said she sympathized with the students but could not overlook the fact that they were in the country illegally.
Reinoso, an immigrant from Peru and a longtime educator, said he would be willing to negotiate with the governor's office and make concessions if necessary to allow the bill to go forward.
Reinoso said he has worked with many bright students who come from poor families and want to continue their education but cannot afford out-of-state tuition rates. "We have the kids here. Let's provide for the opportunity for them to become good citizens, good professionals," he said. "They will be taxpayers. We all want well-educated individuals in our state, so let's provide them the opportunity."
Tuition rates for in-state students are significantly less than those charged to out-of-state students. At the four schools in the Connecticut State University System, in-state tuition will be nearly $8,000 less than out-of-state tuition during the next school year. At the University of Connecticut, in-state students will be charged nearly $15,000 less in tuition than their out-of-state counterparts.
At the state's community colleges, full-time tuition for the next school year will cost $2,640 for Connecticut residents; those paying out-of-state rates will pay $7,920 in tuition.
Looney said the scaled-back bill, which covers only community colleges, stemmed from discussions with advocates and the idea that a more limited proposal might be more palatable.
"I think the issue is still one of merit," he said. "These are, in fact, Connecticut's children, and many times these are children who all of their living memory is of life in Connecticut."
Looney said he expected some people would oppose the bill and "demagogue on this issue," but he said he hoped there would be a practical way to find a solution for Connecticut students.
State Rep. Vincent Candelora, R- North Branford, meanwhile, predicted that the new bills would meet fates similar to last year's bill.
Candelora, who opposes the bills, said he worried that changing the tuition rates would take away slots from legal residents and set a troublesome precedent.
"We're essentially inviting illegal immigrants to come into Connecticut and get educated at a cost-effective rate," he said.
Candelora said his constituents have expressed concern about illegal immigration, particularly in a troubled economy.
"I think the general feedback is, going into a recession, we have taxpayers that are willing to invest in the higher education system with the understanding that in the future their children might get the benefit of that investment," he said. "We effectively are going to give a benefit to people that aren't necessarily paying taxes into the system."
Instead, Candelora said, the legislature should focus on a comprehensive examination on how illegal immigration affects all state institutions, rather than addressing just higher education.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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