Persistence paid off last month, as undocumented students moved one step closer to equal access to higher education. On Thursday, January 24, the Colorado Senate Education Committee approved a bill called Advancing Students for a Stronger Economy Tomorrow (ASSET), a proposed law that would give in-state tuition to Colorado immigrant students without legal status. Refusing to be intimidated by the opposition’s threats and dirty tricks, students joined a host of supporters to speak in favor of the bill during the committee hearing, and shared their dreams of going to college.
As the bill cleared its first legislative hurdle, legislators opposed to the bill grumbled, acknowledging the likelihood of the bill’s passage. Pointing to last year’s proposal, Brian DelGrosso (R-Loveland) said: “If you listen to the speaker’s opening day message, he talked about the Three C’s, and two of the three C’s were collaboration and cooperation, working across the aisle. That’s the one thing he brings up on opening day and all of a sudden this bill is ‘take it or leave it.” The supporters of last year’s bill acquiesced to the opposition by creating a third tier of tuition rates, between in-state and out-of-state rates, and by allowing colleges to opt out. The previous version also barred undocumented youth from the College Opportunity Fund (COF), a subsidy granted to all in-state students as an effort to off-set steep tuition hikes.
This year, with powerful momentum behind the undocumented youth movement and a comfortable Democratic majority in the Colorado House and Senate, Senate Representatives Mike Johnston (D-Denver) and Angela Girón (D-Pueblo) introduced a stronger and simpler bill that would give Colorado immigrant students the same in-state tuition and COF benefits that other Colorado residents receive.
This year’s bill reflects the strength and recent victories of Colorado’s youth movement. Last June, with dozens protesting outside, undocumented students Veronica Gomez and Javier Hernandez occupied the Obama campaign headquarters in Denver. Starting June 5 of last year, they staged a 6 day sit-in and hunger strike to pressure Obama to issue an executive order ending the deportation of DREAM Act-eligible youth. At the end of this protest, the National Immigrant Youth Alliance launched a national campaign of civil disobedience targeting Democratic campaign headquarters across the country, until Obama issued an executive order halting the deportation of DREAM Act eligible youth. Just four days after this call, and ten days after the Denver sit-in began, Obama announced the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and instructed Immigration and Customs Enforcement not to deport several classes of qualifying immigrant youth.
Since 2000, bills similar to ASSET have been introduced and defeated six times. Anti-immigrant groups like Colorado Alliance for Immigration Reform (CAIR), state contact for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, have fought hard to prevent these bills from becoming law. CAIR’s xenophobic positions include undermining the Fourteenth Amendment by opposing birthright citizenship for the children of undocumented parents. The organization has also followed the lead of its former director, current spokesman, and advisory board member Fred Elbel in taking an extreme population control position within the anti-immigrant movement. CAIR’s former spokesman, Mike McGarry, was a volunteer with the Minuteman Project and described illegal immigration as a “continental invasion,” warning that undocumented immigrants comprised a standing army in US cities. In years past, more moderate politicians also stood in the way of an in-state tuition bill, with several Democratic state legislators joining the opposition to the bill.
In the past, opponents of similar bills resorted to base intimidation and demagoguery to quash the debate and stop the bill. At a 2009 congressional hearing on the in-state tuition bill, undocumented students signed in and testified in favor of the bill. Afterwards, opponents took the sign-in sheet, copied the names and addresses of those who provided testimony and submitted it to the Department of Homeland Security. Fearing for her safety, one student and her family were forced to relocate.
In 2011, only one student without legal status testified before the Senate education committee. Sponsor Sen. Mike Johnston acknowledged that more would like to speak, but feared similar reprisals. At the same hearing, CAIR director Stan Weekes called for the sergeant at arms to remove all noncitizens from the courtroom. Fortunately such authoritarian tactics were rejected by committee chairman and Senator Bob Bacon (D – Ft. Collins).
As legislative efforts to grant access to higher education failed, one institution took a stand. In 2011 and 2012, bills similar to ASSET passed through the Senate only to die in committee in the Colorado House of Representatives. In the wake of last year’s defeat, Metro State University decided to offer a special tuition rate for undocumented Colorado students that wouldn’t charge them as out-of-state students. A turf war began over who could set tuition rates, and MSU president Stephen Jordan took criticism from all sides for his decision. Tom Tancredo, a former US congressman from Colorado and founder of the Immigration Reform Caucus, threatened to sue.
The election, greater access to higher education through this year’s proposed in-state tuition bill, and renewed vigor in the immigrant rights movement are signs of a changing tide in Colorado. Furthermore, the bill has picked up a few Republican supporters. Representative Greg Brophy (R-Wray) who opposed the bill in previous legislative sessions has changed his tune. And Republican Senator Owen Hill (R-Colorado Springs) surprised many in his party last week when he joined five Democrats to vote in favor of ASSET, leading to its 6-3 passage in the Senate Education Committee.
The opposition isn’t making a strong offensive on ASSET this year. Last month, only one person took advantage of the public comment period to oppose the bill – John Brick, who shares the position of CAIR spokesman with Elbel. Tancredo dropped his threat of suing Metro State University over its compromise tuition plan.
As the opposition loses steam, and some of the Republican Party joins the chorus backing immigration reform, stalwarts like Tancredo have become desperate. In a recent speech to the Arapahoe County Tea Party, Tancredo spoke in dramatic tones, warning that the Republican Party was on a suicidal path, abandoning its conservative principals and its hard-line stance on immigration. Calling Obama the “dictator in chief,” Tancredo blamed Obama’s re-election on education and “50 years of massive immigration without assimilation.” He labeled the Colorado Compact, a recently released bi-partisan proposal for immigration reform “a lot of weasel words and a lot of platitudes leading toward some sort of amnesty.” Such speeches are indicative of a growing divide among the Republican Party, and the declining political power of the anti-immigrant movement.
While the ASSET bill has only passed its first test this season, its future looks bright. If it passes, Colorado will join thirteen other states in granting in-state tuition to undocumented youth. While there is still more work to be done, thanks to the tireless work of a broad-based coalition, it seems likely that the seventh time is the charm.