DENVER – After 10 years of trying, immigrant advocates finally saw the Legislature approve in-state tuition for the children of illegal immigrants Friday.
The vote in the House marked a dramatic change in the public debate about immigration, with first Democrats and, this year, some Republicans adding their support to the bill.
Senate Bill 33 passed the House on a 40-21 vote. It already passed the Senate and now goes to Gov. John Hickenlooper, who has said he will sign it.
The bill allows Colorado high school graduates to qualify for in-state tuition, regardless of their immigration status, as long as they attended Colorado high schools for three years and pledge to apply for legal status.
House supporters recognized what they called a historic moment.
“It is a piece of legislation that generations of people will point to as the moment in time when the wisdom of this General Assembly held that Colorado’s own children – children who love this state, children who have given to our societal enlightenment, children who have contributed to our economy – were finally and fully recognized as something more than illegal or undocumented,” said Rep. Joe Salazar, D-Thornton.
But support was not unanimous. Republican opponents argued that without federal immigration reform, the tuition bill offered only false hope to immigrant students.
“We’re missing the point. With or without a college degree, these kids can’t get a job,” said Rep. Polly Lawrence, R-Littleton.
But dozens of students and advocates for the bill thought otherwise. Their cheers echoed through the Capitol for half an hour as they hugged and high-fived in the hallway outside the House chamber.
Advocates have struggled to pass the bill since 2003 and originally had trouble convincing even Democrats. Versions of it died in the Democratic-controlled Senate before the chamber finally passed it in 2011. But the last two years, it died in the Republican-controlled House.
As recently as 2006, Democrats were bragging about passing the toughest anti-illegal immigration bill in the country – a move they took to preempt an even stricter ballot measure.
This year, every Democrat in the Legislature voted for the tuition bill, and six Republicans joined them.
The shift mirrors a newly invigorated bipartisan effort in Washington to pass a national immigration-reform bill.
Locally, Rep. Mike McLachlan, D-Durango, voted “yes,” and Rep. Don Coram, R-Montrose, voted “no.”