Undocumented students can be ASSET

In a state that has to import college graduates to meets its needs for an educated work force, and which needs to find new support for higher education, what is not to like about a bill that could enroll as many as 900 students in advanced education programs and infuse as much as $1.75 to $4.2 million into Colorado universities and colleges?

The Colorado Legislature has an opportunity to do just that, while mitigating some of the distress young undocumented Latinos felt when the federal Dream Act failed in Congress last year.

The Advancing Students for a Stronger Economy Tomorrow (ASSET) bill — Senate Bill 126 — would open higher education opportunities to undocumented Colorado students by charging them resident rates to attend state universities, colleges, and community colleges.

Presently undocumented students graduating from Colorado high schools must pay out-of-state tuition three to five times higher than in-state costs. Undocumented students would still pay more in tuition than their peers, since they would not be eligible for Colorado Opportunity Fund stipends that go to other students.

Undocumented students would not be counted for purposes of state funding for higher education, thus avoiding the perception that an ASSET student might deprive another student of a place in college or financial aid involving public funds.

Introduced by Democratic State Sens. Angela Giron of Pueblo and Mike Johnston of Denver, the bill is sponsored in the House by Joe Miklosi and Angela Williams, also of Denver.

ASSET would enable undocumented students who graduate, or obtain a GED from Colorado schools to enroll in state educational institutions at resident tuition rates, provided they meet certain requirements.

Eligibility would require three years attendance in Colorado schools, and would require signing a sworn statement that the student has applied for lawful resident status, or that they intend to do so when eligible.

Proponents of the bill argue both its positive economic implications, and its moral imperative. “It has always been the right thing to do, and now it is the economically smart thing to do,” Giron told a press conference. “We can’t and must not allow another generation of young immigrants to struggle to contribute to American society.”

Eleven states, including all of Colorado’s neighbors except Wyoming, have passed similar legislation. Democrats often cite Texas, the bastion of business friendly Republican administrations, as an example of the effectiveness of an in-state tuition law for undocumented students. After Gov. Rick Perry signed a similar law in 2009, revenue to Texas universities and Colleges increased by $20 million.

The ASSET bill has 20 sponsors and co-sponsors, all Democrats. Twelve are in the Senate, and eight in the House.

But, says Johnston, “This is not a partisan issue — this is a fiscal issue.” He hopes enough Republicans will cross lines to pass the bill, despite GOP control of the House.

The major spokesman for Republican opposition appears to be Highlands Ranch Sen. Ted Harvey. Though the Colorado numbers cited above are from a Legislative Council Staff analysis conducted for similar legislation that was defeated in 2009, Harvey dismisses the financial argument.

Rather, he argues, the bill would become a magnet to increase illegal immigration. “It is not the role of the government to incentivize more people coming here by giving them a reward.”

Since many of the students affected by the bill were brought here as infants or young children by parents looking for work, it is difficult to see how any such “incentivizing” was involved. Nor does it make any sense to punish children for immigration infractions committed by their parents.

Perhaps Harvey would be wise to consider what he wants to “incentivize” by curtailing opportunity for these young people. Will condemning them to a life of low wages and little future make for a better economy in Colorado?

According to a Rand study quoted by supporters of ASSET, a 30-year-old immigrant who graduates from college provides a $9,000 net annual benefit to the state through increased economic contributions and tax revenues, and decreased reliance on state services.

“We have the chance to show both Colorado’s greatness and Colorado’s goodness at the same time,” Johnston said.

The Legislature should seize the opportunity because it’s both the right thing and the practical thing to do.

Bill Grant lives in Grand Junction. He can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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