Oregon Senate vote on immigrant tuition bill could come next week

SALEM — The state Senate could vote as soon as next week on a bill that would allow some illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition at Oregon universities.

The measure has ignited a debate about whether any state benefits should extend to young people brought illegally to the United States as children. Supporters say children shouldn't be punished for their parents' actions, and the state should help students be productive residents after investing in years of public education.

"We're talking about children who are in a no man's land, not of their choice," said Sen. David Nelson, R-Pendleton, a sponsor of the bill.

But opponents say illegal activity should never be excused.

"They try to blame sympathy. But the bucket of sympathy from American citizens has dried up," said Jim Ludwig, president of Oregonians for Immigration Reform. "They're tired of people who come here illegally and use those services and want more."

Still, the bill has bipartisan support and could fare well in the Senate.

The measure, SB 742, passed the Senate Education and Workforce Development Committee on a 4-1 vote last week. It would require universities to charge in-state tuition to illegal immigrants who attended at least three years of school in Oregon and applied to college within three years of receiving a high school or GED diploma. 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.

It also would require the students to attest that they have applied for legal residency — a provision aimed at ensuring students are eligible to work in the U.S. after they receive a degree.

Ten states have similar laws, including West Coast neighbors Oregon and California.

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, international student or out-of-state student.

Opponents of the bill contend that it would cost the universities thousands in lost revenue from students who would otherwise pay nonresident tuition. But proponents say any lost revenue would be more than made up by increased tuition income from students who couldn't otherwise afford to go to college.

Samantha Moreno, a 16-year-old high school student who was brought to the U.S. illegally at age 6, said she's worried about how she'd afford to go to college and help her family with bills if she had to pay nonresident tuition.

"My mom is my only supporter right now. I would struggle a lot with money," said Moreno, who has lived in Eugene for 10 years.

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

Oregon University System officials project they'd take on three additional students in the 2012-13 school year and 33 additional students the following year. The analysis also projects that no campus would take on more than 15 additional students or have to add faculty. The higher education board has voted to support the legislation.

Sen. Frank Morse, R-Albany, said he has voted against the bill in the past but changed his mind after hearing from a guidance counselor who had an exceptionally talented student who couldn't continue her education because she couldn't afford out-of-state tuition. This year he's a sponsor of the measure.

"Do we want to foreclose opportunity on them, or do we want to improve their lives and make Oregon a better state?" Morse said. "To me it's really quite pragmatic. As a group of people, a policy that says we're going to deny you opportunity just doesn't make sense."

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