After an eight-hour Republican filibuster, the state Senate Tuesday night passed a bill providing in-state tuition at public college and universities for undocumented students and sent it along to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who said he intends to sign it into law.
“They’ve earned their spot… I think this is a compassionate law trying to give people a leg up like many us were given a leg up,” said Sen. Beth Bye, D-West Hartford and the co-chairwoman of the legislature’s Higher Education Committee. “It levels the playing field.”
But Republicans, who unanimously opposed the bill, said it could deprive legal residents of places in the state’s strained higher education system. The University of Connecticut is at capacity, and the community colleges may abandon their traditional open-enrollment policy in the face of budget cuts.
“It certainly changes the competition,” said Rep. Toni Boucher, R-Wilton and ranking Republican of the Higher Education Committee. “The competition will be between those who are here legally and those who are not.”
When the bill was approved by the House of Representatives by a 77-63 vote earlier this month, House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero Jr. of Norwalk was more direct.
“There’s winners and there’s losers,” he said. “Remember folks, when someone gets in, someone gets denied.”
The impact of the bill is uncertain. Backers estimate about 200 undocumented students will take advantage of the in-state tuition–a tiny fraction of the 126,000 students in the state’s three college and university systems. Higher education officials, who generally support the bill, have said few undocumented immigrants are enrolled now, and advocates argue that many will still fear coming forward and declaring their illegal status to receive the reduced rate.
Studies of other states that have passed similar legislation suggest that enrollment of undocumented students increased by about 31 percent after tuition was reduced, according to a report by the Roger Williams University’s Latino Policy Institute.
Sen. John P. McKinney, the Minority Leader in the Senate, said the uncertainty of how many students will participate is behind his opposition to the bill.
“We don’t know how many students are going to qualify,” he said, calling the 200-student edtimate “speculation.”He added, “This is not about fear of illegal immigration.. it’s about an extraordinarily competitive education system in Connecticut.”
Malloy said while he intends to sign the bill, he was hoping it would have less rigorous requirements for students to qualify. The bill requires students to complete all four years of high school in Connecticut to receive in-state tuition.
“Anyone that has a degree from a Connecticut high school should be able to attend a public institution at an in-state rate. That’s what I believe,” Malloy said before the Senate began debate.
The 12 other states that allow in-state tuition for undocumented students require them to attend one to three years of high school in-state, according to a National Conference of State Legislators report.
“This would actually be the strictest standard in the nation,” said Bye.
Opponents of the measure said the state should not reward those who don’t “play by the rules,” but backers said the students who will benefit didn’t make the decision to break the law and enter the country illegally as children.
Carolina Bortolleto and her twin sister Camila are two of those students. The twins, who graduated from Western Connecticut State University last fall, moved with their parents from Brazil when they were 9-years old.
“I found I was stuck paying out-of-state tuition when the bill came saying I had to pay $5,500 more a semester. I was shocked because in my mind I was a Connecticut resident,” she said Tuesday standing outside the Senate chamber where the debate was taking place.
Convinced it was a mistake, the twins headed to the bursars office at WCSU with all their high school and middle school records, tax filings by their parents showing they had paid taxes the last eight years to be told they were stuck paying out-of-state rates.
“Basically we were missing the right paperwork,” Carolina said, who graduated with a 3.96 GPA and a biology degree last fall.
The twins and about a dozen other undocumented students watched the nearly 9-hour debate from the Senate gallery. When the final bill was finally approved 21-14 the girls and their friends cheered and hugged.