Palmer High senior cheers for bill that would ease tuition

Megan Schrader Updated: January 26, 2013 at 12:00 am • Published: January 26, 2013

Rene Gonzalez was 9 when he and his mother walked from Ciudad Juarez across the Texas border for a chance at life without domestic violence and with an American education.
Gonzalez said his mother told him it was a vacation as they walked for miles and slept on the ground.

He believed her.

Now a senior at Palmer High School — set to graduate in May with a 4.1 GPA — all that stands between him and the dream of higher education are the fear of deportation and the high cost of tuition.

“We looked at CU Boulder … but then we looked at the price and it wasn’t quite so pretty, especially because currently, I would have to pay out-of-state tuition without a Social Security number,” said Gonzalez, who hopes to study physics.

Enter the ASSET bill — Advancing Students for a Stronger Economy Tomorrow — that is expected to steamroll through the Democrat-controlled state Legislature this year.

For the past six years, Democrats have tried unsuccessfully to pass legislation allowing illegal immigrants who have attended Colorado high schools in the years before graduation to attend public universities with in-state tuition rates.

Sen. Ted Harvey, R-Highlands Ranch, is among those opposed to the policy.

“Not only will the ASSET bill encourage more illegal behavior because when you reward illegal behavior you get illegal behavior, but it will also encourage those that are illegally here but living in other states to immigrate to Colorado to take advantage of this additional taxpayer-funded subsidy,” Harvey said.

Harvey said he doesn’t blame parents for crossing the border illegally and would likely do the same for his children, but offering a taxpayer-funded benefit to those without legal status is bad policy.

The bill’s authors say it will allow the state to realize a return on the investment made in student’s kindergarten through 12th-grade education.

“These students are here now. These students have worked hard. They were brought here by well-meaning parents who only want the same thing for their children we all want for our children,” said Lt. Gov. Joseph Garcia, also expressing support from Gov. John Hickenlooper for the bill during the first hearing Thursday at the Capitol. It was approved 6-3 and now heads to another committee.

“What this bill will provide is their path forward,” Garcia said.

Under SB33, students who have attended a Colorado high school for at least three years before graduating or receiving a GED would qualify for in-state tuition.

The students must attest that they have applied for lawful presence in the U.S. or will apply as soon as possible.

‘That’s not good policy’

Gonzalez meets those criteria.

Colorado’s public colleges and universities would receive an estimated $2 million in 2013 and $3 million in 2014 in tuition if 500 additional students attend the schools that otherwise wouldn’t have, according to the fiscal analysis done by the legislative council.

There would be an additional cost to the state of $930,000 in 2013 and $1.4 million in 2014 for the College Opportunity Fund payments for those students, the fiscal note said.
The fiscal note does not, however, analyze the difference in the cost of in-state tuition versus the cost of educating each student.

“This policy will allow ‘x’ number of students to be eligible to go to college who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford CU, but the reason why is because we are subsidizing it with taxpayer dollars, and that’s not good policy,” Harvey said.

Fear of deportation

Gonzalez said it wasn’t until he got older that he learned to fear deportation.

“I had no idea what illegal was … the word illegal never actually came through my mind. But then eventually, yes, I started getting more familiar with the idea. And I got the concept in my head that maybe it was a little bit dangerous to just tell the world that I was illegal,” he said.

President Barack Obama signed an executive order last year making it possible for illegal immigrants who arrived in the United States as children to remain in the country for a short time without fear of deportation.

Gonzalez was among 7,124 undocumented immigrants in Colorado who applied for the deferred status between August and December, according to statistics from the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Colorado ranks 10th in the nation with the most young-illegal immigrants applying for the new status, according to the immigration agency.

Across the nation, 367,903 people had applied and 355,889 were accepted for the status by December.

Gonzalez was among those accepted. The Colorado Springs law firm Hanes and Bartels helped usher the teen through the legal process.

Deferred action delays deportation for two years, with a possible extension of an additional two years.

Gonzalez now has a work permit and will be able to support himself through college.
At the end of a maximum of four years, those with deferred status may be forced to leave the country if they have not obtained a green card or citizenship.

“They have not promised that, that would spring board into any permanent status,” said Josh Deere, an attorney with Hanes and Bartels. “We have looked at some options like applying for advanced parole and potentially they could leave the country knowing they could come back in on a student visa and be here legally. It’s tricky, it’s complicated and it may be risky.”

Deere said they have not attempted this and are not certain it would work.

Harvey called the deferred status policy false hope for students.

Gonzalez says he tries not to worry that far down the road.

“For now, I’m just happy that I will be at least temporarily legal,” Gonzalez said. “I can get my head straight and go to college without having to worry at least for a while, but I don’t know what I will do after the four years.”

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