In-State Tuition For Illegal Aliens Hearing Draws Small Crowd, Emotional Testimony

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BOSTON — Less than a week ago, a hearing on Beacon Hill regarding a proposal that would effectively enact sanctuary city policies statewide drew overflow crowds.

Nearly two years ago, a hearing on a batch of bills that sought to expand in-state tuition privileges at state-run colleges and universities to illegal aliens drew similarly large crowds, packed with hours upon hours of testimony, and months later prompted students to stage sit-ins and occupy various House offices in an effort to sway lawmakers.

On Thursday the in-state tuition bills that had failed to advance to the House floor during the previous legislative session were heard once again, yet this time, the crowds from the summer of 2015 did not return to the State House for an encore.

“I arrived very early because two years ago when I came the place was packed,” Karen Price of the League of Women Voters of Massachusetts, one of a handful of non-lawmakers who testified Wednesday, told members of the Higher Education Committee. “It was standing room only.

“Now I’m wondering, where are all the undocumented students who came and spoke so passionately for this law? Are they afraid to appear today? Have they given up on the legislative process? I don’t know, but it’s a stark contrast.”

Open seating was abundant for Thursday’s hearing on several bills that call for granting in-state tuition rates to illegal aliens — a far cry from the crowds the proposals drew when they were last debated two years ago. (Evan Lips — New Boston Post)

The committee on Thursday heard testimony concerning six different bills, all related to the tuition issue, all calling for in-state tuition benefits to be extended. No one testified in opposition to the bills, although there are twin proposals drafted by state representatives. Marc Lombardo (R-Billerica) and Jim Lyons (R-North Andover) that effectively challenge the six bills heard Wednesday.

Some of the most emotional testimony came courtesy of state Senator Linda Dorcena Forry (D-Dorchester), a first-generation Haitian-American. Dorcena Forry, at one point nearly overcome with emotion, her eyes welling up with tears, reminded the committee that those most affected by the disparity in tuition rates “came here through no fault of their own.”

“They are working hard, day in and day out,” Dorcena Forry said, regarding the children affected by the policy, and the current national political climate surrounding immigration issues, before pausing to collect herself. “The national debate that is taking place is very disheartening, it’s very scary, for a lot of families and a lot of children who don’t even want to go to school because they are afraid of getting kicked out.

“We have to do better as Americans, we have to do better as a country in saying we are going to stand up for that person.”

Dorcena Forry pointed to a recent news report regarding a Westchester, New York teen who was arrested and detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement authorities en route to his high school prom. The 19-year-old from Ecuador had reportedly been facing a removal order after entering the country illegally along with his mother two years ago.

“A kid who excelled in high school, hiding in a closet, because ICE is pounding on the door,” she said. “We believe in public safety, but to go after a high school student who is doing the right thing and to say we’re going to send you back to a place that you don’t even know, or a language that you may not even speak, is wrong.”

Price in her testimony pointed out that in-state tuition and fees at the state’s publicly-run four-year colleges amounts to more than $15,000 annually, while out-of-state tuition and fees add up to more than $33,000 per year, more than double the cost. Amy Grunder, director of legislative affairs for the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, testified that there are more than “15,000 undocumented students currently enrolled in Massachusetts public schools” and noted that in addition to being unable to access in-state tuition rates, “these students are also ineligible for federal or state financial aid, effectively putting college out of reach.”

Grunder later pointed to the state’s move in 2012 to extend in-state tuition to Deferred Action For Childhood Arrivals (DACA) grantees, but specified that DACA is only available to students who arrived in the United State prior to June 15, 2007.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 18 other states currently offer in-state tuition rates to illegal aliens.

State Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz, (D-Jamaica Plain), whose father was the first naturalized immigrant to become an astronaut, argued that the bills “are simply about fairness.”

Chang-Diaz noted that she has filed bills pertaining to the issue “for several years” and claimed that “it’s about doing what’s smart for our own economy, despite what the fear-mongers say.”

State Representative Denise Provost (D-Somerville) pointed out that even more conservative states like Texas boast an in-state tuition policy for all, while Chang-Diaz added that “this bill has been signed by GOP govs in many other states because they recognize the benefits.”

James Driscoll, executive director of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference, told the committee that a “college classroom today would provide a safe and stable space for undocumented students, especially in these uncertain times,” and noted that “for many of these students, this is the only home they have ever known.”

Dorcena Forry later added that backers of the bills “are not even saying free tuition” and are instead “just saying we don’t want them to pay $32,000, as if they’ve never lived in Massachusetts.”

“We’re saying you still have to come up with the money — we’re not saying it’s a freebie for people,” she said. “I can tell you as a child of immigrants, my parents came here from Haiti, and they worked hard, and they came here not being able to speak a lick of English, they didn’t have a million bucks, but they said ‘work hard’ and ‘get the grades.’

Dorcena Forry also reiterated a point made earlier regarding the list of states that already boast the policy, which include Oklahoma and Utah in addition to Texas.

“This isn’t new, 18 other states do it, red states do it, my goodness,” she said. “We are Massachusetts, and we have an opportunity to do the right thing and to send a message because nationally things are changing and we have to be on the right side.”

According to State House News Service, the last time a similar bill reached the House floor for a vote was in 2006, where it was defeated by 57-95. The News Service notes that the proposals heard Thursday have not been cited by legislative leaders as a priority for the current session.