High hopes for illegal immigrant tuition bill

DENVER - After trying and failing six times in the last 10 years, advocates for immigrants see victory in sight for their drive to allow in-state college tuition for students who immigrated illegally.

Democrats introduced Senate Bill 33 on Tuesday and held a crowded rally in the Capitol's front hall to promote it.

It was more of a warm-up for a victory rally than anything, because with Democrats firmly in control of the Legislature, they know they have the votes to pass the bill.

"This is the year that we stand up for the children who represent our future," said Denver Mayor Michael Hancock. "It is unwise and unjust to punish children just because their parents wanted a better life for them and made a decision to bring them to this country without their permission."

SB 33 allows children who crossed the border illegally with their parents to get in-state tuition rates if they attend a Colorado high school for three years and get a diploma.

Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, did not support previous versions of the bill and still does not.

"It's the same problem each year it's presented. The undocumented student graduates with college debt and a degree and can't get a job legally," Roberts said.

Roberts said the federal government needs to fix the immigration system before states such as Colorado act. She signed on to the "Colorado Compact," an effort by Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet to set the stage for bipartisan immigration reform in Congress this year.

But one of SB 33's sponsors, Sen. Michael Johnston, D-Denver, said the bill will give hope to young students.

"They're watching right now as the last two valedictorians at a high school in my district are flipping burgers," said Johnston, a former high school principal in a neighborhood populated by immigrants.

Johnston sponsored the bill last year and predicted he would get more Republican votes than last year, when the bill got just one Republican vote and died in a House committee.

However, the bill is different from last year's compromise version. In 2012, in the hopes of attracting Republican votes, sponsors created a third category of tuition - more than in-state but less than out-of-state - to make sure that students in the country illegally don't get money from the state's College Opportunity Fund.

This year, the bill allows immigrant students to get in-state tuition just like Colorado residents.

SB 33 is expected to move quickly. The Senate Education Committee will hear it in the next week or two, Johnston said.