House votes to repeal tuition break for undocumented students

By By Rochelle McConkie

By Rochelle McConkie

When U senior Denise Castañeda watched the final vote come up on the screen, she fell silent, with tears welling up in her eyes.

“I don’t understand why they need to limit someone’s–why they need to limit a child’s–opportunity to go to college,” Castañeda said. “I work with these students every week, and they try so hard. I don’t understand it.”

Along with other U students, faculty and administrators, Castañeda, a social justice and education major, has been lobbying against HB 241, which would repeal the in-state tuition discount for undocumented college students. The bill passed in the House of the Utah State Legislature on Tuesday with two amendments and a final vote of 40 to 35. The Senate will now vote on the bill.

Bill sponsor Rep. Glenn Donnelson, R- North Ogden, said allowing undocumented students to pay in-state tuition was giving them “false hopes” because they would not be able to get a job after graduation without falsifying documents.

Under current law, undocumented students who graduate from a Utah high school and sign a form stating they will work to legalize their citizenship can receive the in-state tuition break. HB 241 would not affect children who are born to undocumented immigrants living in the United States.

“Education is good, but what we need to do is make sure we’re not selling these students false dreams,” Donnelson said. “Yes, we’re giving them an education, but they’re not entitled to any post-education benefits.”

Donnelson amended the bill so it would affect students who register for college after Sept. 30, 2010, instead of May 1, 2008, as was originally proposed.

“By pushing it back two years, This will allow students in high school to plan where they will be and allows the federal government to come to the aid of these students and change the law effectively,” Donnelson said.

Castañeda, who works at a high school where some students are undocumented, said the amendment most likely brought in more votes because the change would not be as immediate, but it doesn’t make the bill any better.

“It’s okay for the sophomores, but what am I supposed to tell the freshmen?” she said.

U associate professor and Assistant Vice President for Academic Outreach Theresa Martinez said the amendment does not allow very much time to rely on the federal government for effective change.

There was some dialogue on the floor prior to the vote, but some representatives said they were just wasting time with questioning because everyone already knew how they were going to vote. Similar bills have been proposed at the Legislature six times before.

Rep. Kay McIff, R-Richfield, proposed an amendment to remove the words “if allowed under federal law” from the bill because he said they constituted a “partial surrender of the sovereignty of the state of Utah with respect to the control of higher education.”

McIff’s amendment passed, even though Rep. Seve Urquhart, R-St. George, said they were just “chewing up a lot of time over nothing.”

Rep. Phil Riesen, D-Salt Lake City, was the only representative to speak against the bill. Riesen urged other representatives to vote against the bill, saying that the immigration issues at hand are a “poignant reminder of how our communities are changing.”

“When we fear change, we tend to lash out at those we think are responsible for the change–undocumented immigrants and their children are an easy target because they have no legal ground,” Riesen said. “If we create laws in this body that either criminalize or further disenfranchise a whole group of people, another generation of society will be split upon the grounds of race and class. That’s never what Utah has been about, and it should not be now.”

Riesen recounted an American Indian story in which a Cherokee grandfather told his grandson that there was a war going on inside of him between two wolves–one good and one bad. When his grandson asked which one will win, he said, “The one we feed.”

“Let us, as a body, nourish the good wolf,” Riesen told the floor.

In his concluding remarks, Donnelson responded by asking, “Which wolf are we, the bad wolf or the good wolf, if we encourage breaking the law?”

Valery Pozo, a junior in history teaching, said she will keep lobbying against HB 241 and other anti-immigrant bills, but she is frustrated that the bill passed in the House.

“Every legislative session we bring arguments and studies showing how immigrants benefit society, and we try to argue with passion, but either way we lose,” Pozo said. “I don’t know how the reception will be (in the Senate).”

Martinez said the Senate does not always have the same opinion as the House, so she is hopeful it will not pass or that Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. will veto the bill if it does pass.

Martinez will co-chair a press conference in the Capitol Rotunda on Thursday at 2 p.m. to reach out to senators with her group, Utahns for the American Dream.

“We’re still fighting, we’re still hopeful,” Martinez said.

Castañeda said the students need to keep lobbying.

“All I can do is keep contacting my senators and representatives and pray for compassion,” she said.

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