The Colorado Senate killed a proposal Monday that would have allowed illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition at state colleges and universities.
Five Democrats joined with Republicans to defeat the bill in a 18-16 vote after a three-hour debate.
Senate Bill 170 would have allowed students who are in the country illegally and who have graduated from Colorado high schools to pay in-state tuition plus the cost of a state stipend that other Colorado students receive.
Backers said these students shouldn’t be punished for the laws their parents broke in coming to the United States. Opponents argued it would have violated a federal law that bars states from offering illegal immigrants any benefit that’s not given to citizens from other states.
Lawmakers then voted to change the bill to say it would take effect only if the federal law is changed through the DREAM Act pending in Congress, but that amended version was defeated. Republicans accused majority Democrats of trying to have it both ways since Democrats initially argued that they believed the bill, similar to ones passed in 10 other states, was legal.
Sen. Jim Isgar, D-Hesperus, was among the Democrats who voted no. He said he was upset the fight on the issue had come to overshadow the debate on the overall state budget, which includes a recommended $423 million cut to higher education that could put some schools at risk of closing. About $100 million is set to be offset with federal stimulus money.
“I’m frustrated that we have a budget we can’t even balance,” said Isgar, who added that about 70 percent of his constituents opposed the bill. Even though illegal immigrant students would have to pay more than Colorado residents, Isgar said he thought the state would still end up paying more to support the extra students when things are already tight.
Sen. Linda Newell, D-Littleton, who also voted no, said she listened to her constituents but didn’t elaborate.
Other Democrats who voted against the bill were Sen. Morgan Carroll of Aurora, Sen. Lois Tochtrop of Thornton and Sen. Moe Keller of Wheat Ridge.
Lawmakers said they received hundreds of e-mails and voice mail messages mostly urging them to vote against the bill, although Hispanic organizations have been waging a lobbying effort in favor of the bill. On the morning of the debate, Federico Pena, Denver’s first Hispanic mayor, came to the Capitol to urge fellow Democrats to “do the right thing” and vote for the bill. He acknowledge some were afraid they might lose re-election if they backed the bill, but he told them Latino voters would be there to support “strong Democrats”.
After the defeat, Pena said backers have to continue to educate the public and lawmakers about the measure, including explaining that the measure wouldn’t cost the state anything or hurt other Colorado students.
He said Latino voters would continue to support Democrats but not just any Democrats.
“They’re going to vote for Democrats who share their values,” said Pena, who watched the Senate debate along with former state Sen. Polly Baca.
The bill is dead for the year, but the issue may not be.
Democratic Sen. Chris Romer, who sponsored the bill, said Colorado is one of three states that won’t be able to offer in-state tuition to its illegal immigrant students even if Congress passes the DREAM Act, which stands for Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors. The federal measure would allow illegal immigrants enrolled in college to become legal residents. But a bill passed with bipartisan support during Colorado’s 2006 special legislative session on illegal immigration bars giving state benefits to illegal immigrants with limited exceptions, such as emergency medical care.
Romer said other bills pending in the Legislature could be amended to prevent that 2006 law from stopping the state from offering in-state tuition to illegal immigrants should the DREAM Act pass.