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Mass. advocates shift to immigrant tuition bill

Associated Press | 2/15/2011, 10:45 p.m.

When the U.S. Senate failed to pass the federal DREAM Act, Deivid Ribeiro and other undocumented student immigrants in Boston watched the voting on TV in silence. Some cried while others vowed to continue to press for a bill that would grant conditional legal status to young illegal immigrants who enroll in college or join the military.

Now, student immigrant advocates in Massachusetts say after the defeat of the DREAM Act they are shifting their efforts to an old fight — state legislation that would allow undocumented students to attend Massachusetts public colleges at in-state tuition rates.

“Passing the DREAM Act is going to take time,” said Ribeiro, 22, an undocumented immigrant from Brazil and an aspiring astronaut. “In the meantime, people like myself can’t afford to go to college and pay out-of-state tuition, even though we’ve lived here most of our lives.”

Under the state proposal co-sponsored by Rep. Alice Wolf, D-Cambridge, and Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, D-Boston, illegal immigrant students who graduated from a Massachusetts high school and have lived in the state for at least three years would be eligible for in-state tuition rates at state colleges. They would not be eligible for federal financial aid.

Similar laws have been adopted in at least 10 other states, including Texas, California and New York. Meanwhile, four states — Arizona, Colorado, Georgia and South Carolina — have passed laws specifically banning illegal immigrants from being eligible for in-state tuition.

The move to push Massachusetts lawmakers comes after a broad national coalition of undocumented students, or DREAMers, agreed to all work on local issues around education while they wait to see what direction the new Congress goes on immigration reform. Groups like the Student Immigrant Movement plan to launch a long campaign over the proposal, but also say they will hold workshops for immigrant students on how to apply to college.

Immigrant advocates have long wondered why a state like Massachusetts, dominated by Democratic lawmakers, has failed to pass an in-state tuition proposal a number of times.

“It doesn’t make sense,” said Ribeiro of the Boston-based Student Immigrant Movement. “But we are hoping to convince some lawmakers who have been on the fence by sharing our stories. We want to work and contribute.” He said the group plans to lobby lawmakers and hold rallies.

Advocates said they also feel like they are in better position this session than in previous ones after Gov. Deval Patrick said in November he would work to adopt all of an immigrant advisory panel’s recommendations, which included the in-state tuition proposal.

However, House Minority Leader Bradley Jones, R-North Reading, has vowed to oppose the measure on in-state tuition and predicted it would fail again. Some Democrats also have expressed concerns over costs and the need to address more pressing issues, like the state’s budget.

Chang-Diaz said in order for the bill to pass this time, advocates and students will have to help bring attention to the bill and debunk “myths” surrounding the proposal.

“We have the facts on our side,” said Chang-Diaz. “It’s a revenue generator.”

Chang-Diaz pointed to a study by the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation that estimates that 400 to 600 students might enter Massachusetts schools as a result of the bill and that it likely would result in $2.5 million of extra revenue.

Wolf said Massachusetts lawmakers have an obligation to tackle the issue of in-state tuition since the federal government has failed to address immigration reform. She said the immigrant students were going to continue to live in the Bay State and lawmakers might as well allow them to become productive.

“This is an emotional issue,” said Wolf. “I hope what will move some of my colleagues is to understand how important it is that we support our economy and we support our kids and we not leave people hanging on the street corners or, if they are very lucky, maybe flipping hamburgers.”

Associated Press