Students push in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants

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BOSTON – With legislation that would give undocumented immigrants in-state tuition rates approaching its tenth month in committee, members of a student group supporting the move piled into Rep. Tom Sannicandro’s office Thursday, calling on the co-chair of the Joint Committee on Higher Education to schedule the bill for a vote.

Wearing graduation robes and mortarboards, nearly 30 members of The Student Immigration Movement packed into the Ashland Democrat’s State House office and shared stories with staffers about their struggles seeking higher education and called for a vote by next week, before the next legislative recess begins. The bill would lower the costs of attending state schools, including the University of Massachusetts, for undocumented immigrants who meet certain conditions.

“We can’t wait another year for this. It’s our lives that are at stake,” said Jean Soares, an undocumented immigrant from Brazil. He told the aides he wants to start school next year.

Sponsored by Rep. Denise Provost (D-Somerville), the Education Equity Act (H 1061) also would make undocumented immigrants eligible for  financial aid if they graduated from a Massachusetts high school and attended at least three years of high school in the state. The committee is currently considering H 1061 as well as a similar bill (S 654), sponsored by Sen. Sonia Chang Diaz (D-Boston). Bills restricting in-state tuition to citizens and legal permanent residents are also being considered.

After a hearing on the legislation in July, Sannicandro said he supports both bills. He was not at the State House late Thursday when the group, including many students from the Framingham area, arrived at his office.

Since July, the Student Immigration Movement has increased their presence at the State House, lobbying lawmakers on the Education Equity Act. In October the group staged a sit-in at Sen. Eileen Donohue’s office, urging the Lowell Democrat and vice-chair of the committee, to publicly support the bill.

Carlos Rojas Alvarez, the group’s campaign coordinator, claims there are at least eight lawmakers on the committee who support the bill. He said he is disappointed by Sannicandro’s “inaction” to call for a vote.

Scott Lieber, staff director for Rep. Sannicandro, assured the group that the representative is with them on this issue, but offered no indication as to how many endorsements the bill has or when a vote will be scheduled.

Sannicandro, who was attending the inauguration of UMass President Marty Meehan on Thursday, responded to the group’s concerns in a statement to the News Service where he reiterated his support for undocumented students.

“Nobody organizes a group like that unless they care deeply about an issue,” Sannicandro said. “I’m sorry they don’t think I’m with them, because I’ve been working to expand opportunities to college for many groups, including low-income students, students with disabilities, and undocumented students. It’s critical for their future and it’s only going to make the state stronger.”

Under the Legislature’s rules, joint committees have until the third Wednesday in March of the second year of the two-year session – March 16, 2016 – to report on most bills. Senate critics of that rule say it leaves too little time before formal sessions end in the second year of the session – by July 31, 2016 – for proponents of bills to advance their proposals through other committees and the full House and Senate.

Immigrant activists and students have been lobbying for the bill for many years. In 2006, the legislation did reach the House floor and after more than six hours of emotional debate, the House voted 57 to 97 to defeat the measure. Rep. Robert DeLeo (D-Winthrop), who was chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee that year and is now speaker of the House, joined the majority in voting against the bill.

Written by Antonio Caban