Rep: Stories could change minds on immigrant tuition bill

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By Antonio Caban and Sam Doran

STATE HOUSE-Immigration advocates, students and educators made emotional pleas to lawmakers Wednesday urging them to pass in-state tuition equality for all undocumented students, a bill which has seen its share of legislative hurdles in conjunction with the national debate about immigration rights.

“We and our parents and our families contribute economically through our labor and through tax are still not allowed to qualify for in-state tuition rates and still don’t qualify for state financial aid which makes college prohibitively expensive,” Carlos Rojas Alvarez, campaign organizer for Student Immigration Movement, said at a press conference outside the State House.

Alvarez, in an interview with the News Service, said he is undocumented from Columbia and lives in Boston.

Hoping to see legislation approved before the end of 2015, the group is in favor of bills filed by Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz (D-Boston) and Rep. Denise Provost (D- Somerville) – S 654, H 1061 – that were the subject of a hearing Wednesday before the Higher Education Committee.

Co-chair Rep. Tom Sannicandro (D-Ashland), who supports tuition equality, said the fact that many of his colleagues didn’t have the opportunity to hear some of the day’s “heart wrenching” testimony is his biggest concern for the bill’s future.

“I think if they had the opportunity to hear this, and hear them, that they would think maybe differently about their positions,” Sannicandro said following the hearing.

Testifying against those two bills Wednesday was Rep. Marc Lombardo (R-Billerica), who said, “For me, this is a matter of fairness.” He cited two situations, a U.S. veteran moving to Massachusetts after discharge and a legal U.S. citizen from Maine, both of whom, he said, would be ineligible for in-state tuition.

“They have to wait a full year before they even qualify,” Lombardo said. “And yet those who are here illegally have the opportunity to get a discounted rate, and the discussion is expanding those discounts.”

Rep. Paul Tucker (D-Salem) read an email sent to him by a man whose family came to the U.S. illegally from the Dominican Republic when the man was two years old. “All my hard work doesn’t seem to count…because I don’t have the money to pay for college myself,” the email read. “I want to be able to do the things my parents could not do. To do the things they wanted me to do when they brought me to this country.”

Tucker told the committee that “anyone who opposes this bill, I’d be happy to have them sit down with this student, Damian, and put a face on this.”

The News Service asked Lombardo after his testimony whether he had ever done as Tucker suggested and talked with an illegal immigrant about tuition.

“I’ve heard the testimonies, I’ve heard the stories,” Lombardo said. “And listen, there’s a human element of this, and you’d be remiss not to appreciate the impact on the individuals’ lives. Just the same, you can’t ignore the struggles of those families who are here legally. My preference is to give preference to the legal residents and taxpayers.”

Lombardo’s views echoed the 2004 reasoning Gov. Mitt Romney had for vetoing an in-state tuition bill for illegal immigrants. Romney said at the time that “I just simply do not feel it’s appropriate for us to create any incentive for people to come to this country illegally.”

Two years later, a House proposal allowing children of undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition rates at state colleges was voted down, 57-97, after lengthy emotional debate.

Building off President Barack Obama’s decision to defer action on immigration violations in 2012, former Gov. Deval Patrick ordered those with deferred status be eligible for in-state tuition rates.

(Photo of Marc R. Lombardo R-Billerica)