CHELSEA, Mass. — It seemed like a given that Mario Rodas would go to college.
The Guatemalan-born student certainly had the academic credentials, going from English as a second language classes to taking advanced placement exams for college credit his senior year at Chelsea High School.
But paying for it was another matter. As an undocumented immigrant in 2005, Rodas would have had to pay out-of-state tuition fees to go to a public college in Massachusetts, and he couldn't afford that. If he had lived in Texas or Utah, states that allow undocumented students to pay in-state tuition rates, Rodas, now 22, might have graduated already.
"Every year, we have more and more students in limbo here," Rodas said. "And every year, we have more and more students taking advantage (of in-state tuition) elsewhere. I don't understand."
Nearly three years after Massachusetts House lawmakers soundly rejected a bill that would have allowed illegal immigrants to attend college at in-state tuition rates, lawmakers are preparing to revisit the issue.
Activists say 10 other states, some dominated by conservative lawmakers, have passed legislation with bipartisan support, and advocates see no reason why Massachusetts, a state controlled by Democrats, can't do the same.
That has been a frustration for advocates in this left-leaning state, which was the first to legalize gay marriage and the only so far to require health insurance for all its residents.
Broad support for in-state tuition
"Massachusetts is out in front of so many things," said Harris Gruman, executive director of the Service Employees International Union Massachusetts State Council. "But Massachusetts is behind on this."
Undocumented students say they plan to launch a campaign by lobbying key lawmakers and sharing their stories in face-to-face meetings. Meanwhile, activists have cultivated a broader coalition of supporters that includes union members, business leaders and academics — something lacking in 2006.
State Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz, D-Boston, said the state's Higher Education Committee is expected to hold hearings on the matter later this year or early next. Chang-Diaz, a co-sponsor of the bill, says it stands a better chance this time, with increased lobbying efforts and support from Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick. Former Gov. Mitt Romney, a Republican, opposed the measure in 2006.
"Time is our friend here," Chang-Diaz said. "We've had more time to talk to more people collectively ... and get them more comfortable with it."
10 states allow lower fees
On Tuesday, the governor is scheduled to release a list of recommendations from his Advisory Council for Refugees and Immigrants that is expected to include in-state tuition for undocumented students. Patrick sent the panel around the state last year to take public comment and to come up with suggestions for new immigration policy.
Currently, 10 states — California, Illinois, Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, Texas, Utah, Washington and Wisconsin — have such in-state tuition laws for undocumented students. Oklahoma repealed its law in 2008.
Meanwhile, four states — Arizona, Colorado, Georgia and South Carolina — have passed laws specifically banning undocumented students from being eligible for in-state tuition.
Steve Kropper, co-director of the Massachusetts Coalition for Immigration Reform, a group that seeks immigration restrictions, said Massachusetts residents have shown to be generally sympathetic to immigration. But he said the public remains resistant to granting illegal immigrants in-state tuition or driver's licenses.
"It doesn't make economic sense to us," Kropper said. "If they can't get a job when they're done (with college), then it doesn't make sense for the state to invest in them."
‘We need a balanced approached’
Gruman said advocates are optimistic in Massachusetts because some of the more vocal opponents are now gone.
For example, former Rep. Marie Parente, D-Milford, who was an outspoken opponent of the bill in 2006, was ousted by John Fernandes later that year. Still, Fernandes has not committed to support the bill and questions whether it should also include provisions for assimilation or enforcement.
"It only speaks to one side of the issue," said Fernandes, a Democrat. "I think we need a balanced approached that speaks to comprehensive immigration reform."
Others who voted against the measure last time also remain opposed. Rep. Demetrius Atsalis, D-Barnstable, still opposes the bill because he believes it will make the state's college fee structure meaningless and will take away the incentive for undocumented students to legalize their status, said spokesman Tom Bernardo.
A possible $2.5 million in extra revenue
Rodas, who was granted asylum in the United States after becoming a poster child for the bill in 2006, said most of the immigrant students who would benefit from the proposal arrived in this country when they were young and are culturally American already.
"Most of these students speak English better than their native language now," Rodas said.
The Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation estimates that 400 to 600 students might enter Massachusetts schools as a result of the bill and that it likely would result in $2.5 million of extra revenue.
According to the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education, current average in-state tuition at state universities is $9,704 compared with out-of-state tuition of $22,157. Average in-state tuition at state community college is $4,305 compared with out-of-state tuition of $10,811.
Stella Flores, a professor of public policy and higher education at Vanderbilt University, said one of the reasons the bill has struggled in Massachusetts is because the foreign-born population is younger than in other states, and because a large percentage of the state's Latinos are Puerto Ricans who aren't concerned about immigration issues since Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory.
She said states that have adopted in-state tuition laws have seen a small number of immigrants take advantage of the opportunities, mainly at community colleges.
"It's usually a small jump," Flores said, "but over time, as news spreads through word of mouth, you'll see an increase."
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