Tuition under fire

By By Natalie Hale

By Natalie Hale

Whispers echoed off the walls as the House Education Committee settled into the packed room.

More than 100 people gathered to hear legislators debate and vote on a measure to prohibit undocumented immigrants from paying tuition at the in-state tuition rate.

After engaging in a lengthy, emotionally charged debate, the committee voted nine to five to pass the bill and reject the existing law making the tuition break available for undocumented students.

Supporters of the bill argued that federal law prohibits the state from giving educational benefits or discounts to undocumented immigrants that are not available to all U.S. citizens, including students from outside the state.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Glenn Donnelson, R-North Ogden, feared the state could face legal repercussions if the current law is upheld. He said both California and Kentucky are currently facing lawsuits for similar legislation.

“The state is at risk of being sued $34 million for each year this law has been in action,” said Donnelson. “That is around $150 million. I don’t want our state to be liable; we don’t have that kind of money.”

Donnelson has tried for the past four years to block undocumented students from receiving the in-state tuition rate.

Opponents of the bill argued the current law allows students to contribute to the Salt Lake community after they graduate.

Kim Wirthlin, U vice president for government relations, defended maintaining the in-state tuition rate for undocumented students.

“These students are contributing to society and have done well in high school,” Wirthlin said. “They want to continue their education so they can make a difference and contribute to society in a positive way.”

Wirthlin said she knew this piece of legislation would be difficult to defeat from the get-go but that she is confident the bill will be defeated later in the process.

Jos Rodriguez, an undocumented student at the U, pleaded with the committee members to look beyond the legal aspects of the issue.

“I know I wouldn’t want to stare my little brother in the face and tell him that he can’t go to college like I did,” Rodriguez said as his eyes filled with tears.

While the bill passed out of committee with a solid majority, it will likely face strong opposition in the House and Senate along with the threat of a veto from Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.

Lisa Roskelley, a spokesperson for Huntsman, wouldn’t say whether the governor plans to veto the bill if it comes to his desk, but said he “supports the law as it stands currently.”

Huntsman was quoted in The Salt Lake Tribune as saying that he would “strongly consider” vetoing the bill.

There are currently 62 undocumented students at the U receiving the in-state tuition rate.

To be eligible for the tuition break at the U, students must have attended a Utah high school for three or more years, have graduated in the state or received a GED and must file an affidavit stating they will work to legalize their status.