Another hurdle cleared for in-state tuition bill

DENVER - Opposition all but melted away Thursday to a bill that gives in-state college tuition rates to children who are in the country illegally.

Senate Bill 33 passed the Senate Education Committee on a 6-3 vote that included its first-ever support from a Republican senator.

Proponents have been trying to pass similar bills for a decade, but in previous years they ran up against emotional opposition.

The bill gives in-state tuition rates regardless of immigration status to students who attend Colorado schools for three years, graduate and apply for legal residency.

Yesenya Saucedo, a Denver high school senior, said she came to Colorado at age 5 with her parents. She dreaded kindergarten because she couldn't speak English, but she learned and is now an honors student.

But she learned that she can't afford out-of-state tuition at Colorado colleges.

"At that instant, I went back to the little 5-year-old girl who sat in the corner because she was afraid," Saucedo said. "My status has cost me internships, scholarships, affording college, international travel opportunities, and the ability to have a driver's license. But at the same time it has allowed me to be determined."

The atmosphere was much different a few years ago, when an opponent angrily demanded that Senate sergeants clear the room of all illegal immigrant students.

On Thursday, just one opponent testified. He said illegal immigrants drive down wages and steal jobs from citizens.

"Colorado citizens want illegal families to self-deport. If this does not happen, it is the responsibility of state and federal authorities to decrease these numbers," said John Brick of the Colorado Alliance for Immigration Reform.

But the heated rhetoric of past years was absent Thursday. The bill is virtually assured of passage, because Democrats control both chambers and Gov. John Hickenlooper supports it.

But the last time Democrats controlled the whole Capitol, the tuition bill failed. Five Democratic senators - including Jim Isgar of Hesperus and four suburban Democrats who are still in the Senate - voted against it.

This year, Democrats are uniformly in favor, and on Thursday, freshman Sen. Owen Hill of Colorado Springs became the first Senate Republican to cast a vote for the bill.

Even Republican opponents hinted that they would support the idea after Congress reforms the national immigration system.

"For me it's not the first step. There are many other things we need to do first," said Sen. Scott Renfroe, R-Greeley.

But things have changed on the federal level since last year, as well.

Two of the students who testified Thursday displayed their new two-year work permits, which they obtained under a "deferred action" program announced by President Barack Obama.

The Legislature's analysts predict the bill will actually make money for the state - about $1.7 million - because it will attract new students to college who couldn't afford it before.

Metropolitan State University of Denver began offering tuition discounts to illegal immigrant students last year.

Already, 237 students are enrolled under the program this semester, said the university's president, Stephen Jordan.

"We saw an impressive number of students apply for the new tuition rate," Jordan said. "Just imagine what will be possible when this bill passes."