Legislative Roundup: In-state tuition repeal dies with session’s close

By Rochelle McConkie

From January to March of the past six years, undocumented students and their families have been on edge, playing a painful waiting game to see whether the Utah State Legislature would take away their ability to go to college.

“When I realized I could graduate and go to college, I felt proud, but then I found out about House Bill 241,” said an undocumented senior at West High School who asked to be unnamed. “I was heartbroken. I feel bad for me, but even more for my brothers. They do way better than me.”

HB 241, which would have repealed in-state tuition for undocumented students, died in the Legislature last week, but undocumented and Latino/a students know the battle is most likely not over. Although the U-bound senior at West High knows he’ll make it to college, he’s not sure if his younger brothers, who have lived in Utah since they were 4 and 5 years old, will ever make it to higher education.

“It’s emotionally draining to have to battle this every year,” said Denise Castañeda, a senior in social justice and education who has lobbied against the bill. “There’s no doubt Rep. Donnelson will bring it up again.”

Rep. Glenn Donnelson, R-North Ogden, introduced the tuition repeal bill, and although it didn’t make it through both voting bodies, he said it progressed further than it had in the past.

“We’ve made progress,” Donnelson said. “It passed in the House, and before I couldn’t get it to the House.”

Donnelson said he doesn’t know whether he will reintroduce the bill next year and will have to see what the climate is with the Legislature, constituents and the federal government before he makes a decision. If the federal government passes the DREAM Act, which would help undocumented high school students achieve citizenship by going to college or serving in the military, Donnelson said he would drop the issue.

“Immigration is always an issue, and whether it is (introduced) by me, it won’t go away until the federal government does something about it,” he said.

U sociology professor and Assistant Vice President for Academic Outreach Theresa Martinez, co-chair of the group Utahns for the American Dream, said the seemingly endless legislation is hard on students.

“It’s incredibly psychologically and emotionally draining for them,” Martinez said. “They are stressed. They lose sleep. Their families are stressed. We don’t want them to go through this year after year.”

In an attempt to garner more votes in the Senate this year, Donnelson changed the bill so that undocumented students would still receive in-state tuition, but only if they agreed not to work. He said this would prevent students from using fraudulent documents to get jobs. The bill didn’t make it to the Senate floor.

Martinez said the substitute was punitive because immigrants need to work to live.

“It comes in the guise of help but it isn’t,” Martinez said.

Donnelson said the business community and construction companies could provide scholarships for all of the undocumented students so that they could pay for other expenses. He said there are only about 200 of these students in the state, so it wouldn’t be a burden.

“The business community, if willing to do that, needs to step up to the plate,” he said. Although Martinez said she and other U lobbyists are “immensely relieved” that the tuition repeal bill did not pass, she was disappointed that the Legislature passed other anti-illegal immigration bills, such as Senate Bill 81, which contains a number of illegal immigration reform measures including empowering state and local law enforcement officers to act as U.S. immigration agents, establishing a Fraudulent Documents Identification Unit in the Utah Office of the Attorney General, forcing public employers and contractors to authenticate the immigration status of each employee and making it a Class A misdemeanor to transport undocumented immigrants for financial gain or to conceal, harbor or shelter the undocumented immigrants.

SB 81 was amended a number of times before it passed to soften the bill. One amendment pushed back the implementation date to July 1, 2009, so a proposed immigration task force could look into the issues, but a bill to create the task force also died.

Lisa Roskelley, spokeswoman for Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., said the governor will likely sign SB 81 into law because the portions of the legislation he had concerns with were either changed or removed. Huntsman was against the tuition repeal bill because “it’s an unfair burden to put on those kids who managed to graduate from high school,” Roskelley said.

Luciano Marzulli, adviser for Movimiento Estudiantil Chicana/o de Aztlán (MEChA), said he is now worried about the implications SB 81 will have on the Latino/a community because of racial profiling that has happened in the past. Latino/a citizens will be forced to carry around their birth certificates or social security cards wherever they go, even though other citizens don’t have to worry about that, he said.

“We’ve seen what’s happened before,” Marzulli said. “When the legislation passes, people who are legal residents… will be detained or deported on accident perhaps because they don’t have their birth certificate with them or their Social Security cards.”

Martinez said the communities need to create a working coalition to determine humane ways to allow immigrants to be educated and work in the state without being exploited.

“We owe them human rights,” she said.

Castañeda said that although she and other students are still processing what happened at the Legislature, they can’t give up.

“We can’t just sit back and not do anything,” she said.

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