House panel takes up immigrant tuition bill

SALEM — Passionate citizens told Oregon lawmakers Wednesday that giving some illegal immigrants subsidized university tuition would be rewarding lawbreakers and harming a cash-strapped state. Others told their elected officials that they have an opportunity to take a stand on a basic issue of fairness.

Lawmakers on the House Rules Committee heard more than two hours of public testimony Wednesday on one of the most emotion-packed issues facing legislators this year: A proposal to allow illegal immigrants who attended high school in Oregon to pay in-state tuition at public universities.

"What the bill would allow is contrary to what our country stands for," said Don Nash of Lake Oswego.

The committee has not scheduled a vote on SB 742, which passed the Senate in March with support from all 15 Democrats who were present and three Republicans.

"It's not my fault my parents brought me here," said 14-year-old Alicio Reyes, who was brought to the U.S. from Mexico when he was 3. "I'm just a kid whose smart enough to know I want to go to college someday."

At least one member of each political party must sign on to advance the bill out of the House committee, which is evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats. Its prospects in the committee are uncertain, but proponents could call for a vote of the full House if they can show they have enough support to pass it.

The measure would require universities to charge in-state tuition to illegal immigrants who attended at least five years of school in the United States, at least three of them in Oregon. They must be dependent on another adult for support and apply to college within three years of receiving a high school or GED diploma.

The hearing comes a day after President Barack Obama called on Congress to overhaul the immigration system.

The in-state tuition would be good for up to five years at one of seven universities governed by the State Board of Higher Education. Students would be required to attest that they have applied for legal residency — a provision aimed at ensuring they're eligible to work in the U.S. after they receive a degree.

Still, opponents of the measure question whether many illegal immigrants would ever complete the long, expensive immigration process to become eligible to work in the United States. Illegal activity should never be excused, opponents say, and the state should not give illegal immigrants a benefit that isn't available to U.S. citizens who live in other states.

"The word illegal already indicates a breaking of laws," said Cliff Girod of Salem. "To allow anyone here illegally to take advantage of subsidized tuition is grossly unfair to our legal citizens."

Proponents of the legislation say undocumented minors who graduate from Oregon high schools are brought into the country by their parents, and some are brought as toddlers and have few ties to their home country. Those students shouldn't be punished for their parents' crimes, they argue.

And, proponents say, the state should help students be productive residents after investing in years of public education.

Paz Ramos, principal of Alder Elementary School in Portland, said his school promotes college to students beginning in kindergarten.

"We have set high expectations for all of our students: You are going to college no matter what," Thomas said. "That dream can be a reality for more students if this bill is passed."

Illegal immigrants are not prohibited from attending private universities but they must pay out-of-state tuition, which is often prohibitively expensive.

The difference between resident and nonresident tuition is different at every school but can be significant. At the University of Oregon, in-state tuition this year is $8,190, compared with $25,830 for an illegal immigrant, out-of-state student or international student.

Opponents of the bill argued it would force the universities to give up thousands in lost revenue from students who otherwise would pay nonresident tuition. An analysis by the Oregon University System projected the schools would make money from the arrangement because more students would be able to afford to attend. University analysts projected that no single school would take in enough new students to need to hire more faculty and increase costs.

The measure would take effect beginning in the 2012-13 school year. University officials project they'd take on three additional students in the first year and 33 additional students the following year.

Illegal immigrants would continue to be prohibited from receiving state or federal scholarships.

The bill has picked up support from the Board of Higher Education as well as the Association of Oregon Industries, which lobbies on behalf of business interests.

"This bill is about fairness," said Rep. Bob Jenson, R-Pendleton, one of two Republicans who have signed on to the bill. The other is Rep. Mark Johnson of Hood River.

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