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The Daily Utah Chronicle

The University of Utah's Independent Student Voice

The Daily Utah Chronicle

The University of Utah's Independent Student Voice

The Daily Utah Chronicle

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Bill could raise tuition for undocumented immigrants

By Jay Logan Rogers

A new bill being considered by the Utah State Legislature could increase the financial burden on immigrant university students who are not U.S. citizens.

Since 2002, students who are undocumented immigrants have been allowed to pay in-state tuition if they completed high school in Utah. House Bill 7, sponsored by Rep. Glenn A. Donnelson, R-North Ogden, proposes to repeal that privilege. The bill will be voted on by the House Education Committee later this legislative session.

The U’s administration has taken an official position against the bill.

“At the university, we recognize that all are benefited by the contributions that college-educated students make to the workplace and society as a whole,” Kim Wirthlin, vice president for Government Relations, said. Wirthlin also said that maintaining the current tuition voucher “is a high priority for the university. It’s an important part of our legislative agenda.”

Proponents of the bill say it will prevent a costly lawsuit and support existing immigration laws. Opponents say there is no danger from a lawsuit, and that repealing the exemption would hurt statewide economic development and prevent a disadvantaged community from improving itself.

“I hope if we pass it, we’ll avoid a lawsuit,” Donnelson said. He said that the state stands to lose up to $31 million if it is successfully sued over the policy.

But Rebecca Chavez-Houck, manager of Community Affairs at the Centro de la Familia de Utah, an advocacy group for Hispanic families in Utah, thinks the risk of a successful lawsuit is poor.

“A similar law was tested in Kansas and upheld,” Chavez-Houck said. “We’re confident this law will be upheld.”

In July 2005, a federal court dismissed a lawsuit brought by a group of students in Kansas challenging that state’s out-of-state tuition exemption for non-citizen residents. The judge stated that the plaintiffs did not have standing to sue because they were not personally damaged by immigrant students being charged in-state tuition.

Donnelson, however, insisted that the Kansas ruling did not eliminate the possibility of a successful legal challenge to Utah’s tuition policy.

“When Kansas City ruled on this, (it) did not rule on the legality of the lawsuit. (It) ruled on if they were the right students to sue,” he said. “Once it gets down to it, I think that they’re going to find out that this law is illegal.”

Representative David Ure, R-Kamas, sponsored the 2002 bill that created the out-of-state tuition option and disputes those who warn of an impending lawsuit.

“It’s hogwash,” Ure said. “Look at what just happened in Kansas. Who’s gonna sue? There’s no damage being caused to people.”

Chavez-Houck said that opponents of the exemption are often unaware that strict requirements must be met for students to be eligible.

“A lot of people don’t understand that students have to attend high school in Utah for at least three years and graduate. They also have to sign an affidavit saying that they’re working toward reconciling their documentation status,” Chavez-Houck said.

A diverse coalition called Utahns for the American Dream is opposing a repeal of the tuition exemption. Members include the U, the Centro de la Familia de Utah, the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce, Ivory Homes, the United Way of Northern Utah and the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City.

Those who favor the tuition exemption say that investing in these minority students will have a positive long-term effect on the state’s economy.

“The real advantage to educating people is that they go back into the Hispanic community and have a positive influence,” Ure said.

Chavez-Houk said she agrees.

“Their families have contributed to the Utah economy by working here for years,” Chavez-Houck said. “We’re concerned that students who have really great potential may be road-blocked by out-of-state tuition they can’t afford.”

Donnelson said the tuition exemption will not benefit Utah’s economy because students who are in the United States illegally cannot technically be hired by American companies under existing law.

“If they start enforcing the law and fining those employers, those who graduate from college illegally won’t be able to get jobs,” Donnelson said.

Ure dismissed such explanations for opposing his tuition exemption. He said he suspected the real reason for House Bill 7 was bias against those who entered this country illegally.

“They’re only here because their parents took them here as children,” Ure said. He said he does not think they should be penalized for their parents’ decision to cross the border.

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