Governor Deval Patrick injected new life into the debate over in-state tuition for illegal immigrant students today when he unexpectedly showed up at a packed hearing and urged the state Legislature to change the law.
Flanked by aides and security, Patrick surprised the joint education committee and a crowd of more than 100 people by urging passage of legislation that would allow illegal immigrant students to pay the same price as other Massachusetts residents at state colleges and universities. Now, illegal immigrants pay the non-resident rate, which is double or triple the price, depending on the school.
The University of Massachusetts Amherst, for instance, costs nonresidents $23,630 a year in tuition and fees, compared with $11,734 for state residents.
After the hearing, Patrick said he understood the arguments on both sides but urged lawmakers to pass it, pointing out that it would increase revenue in the state and help students who have lived in Massachusetts a long time, many since childhood.
“I know they’re going to hear the arguments on both sides. They’re going to hear the theories. They’re going to hear the context of national immigration debates,” he said. “But they should keep in mind we’re talking about real people – individuals, students and families – whose ambitions are caught up in the only community in most cases that they know.”
Today’s move signaled a bolder approach for Patrick on illegal immigration, an issue that has deeply divided the state Legislature. Just last month Patrick defied the US government and rejected the controversial federal program known as Secure Communities, because it was deporting immigrants who did not have criminal histories.
The Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation reported yesterday that passing the legislation would boost the state’s revenues by millions of dollars. Foundation President Michael Widmer estimated that Massachusetts is home to more than 14,000 illegal immigrants under age 18, less than 2 percent of the enrollment in public schools statewide.
He estimated that Massachusetts would increase its revenues by $2 million in the first year, if the bills passed, because more illegal immigrant students could enroll in state colleges and universities. After four years, the revenue would rise to as much as $7 million, he said.
About 300 to 400 students would be expected to enroll in the first year, he said. Since such students are not eligible for government financial aid, Widmer said the cost to the state would be minimal.
Isabel Vargas of Methuen, an 18-year-old student here illegally from the Dominican Republic since she was 8 years old, offered tearful testimony to the committee about how she desperately wants to finish her education but worried that nonresident tuition would prove too costly. “It was like a wall I could never climb over,” she told them.
She drew laughter when she waved a receipt from the US government showing that she paid her taxes this year -- $476.08 to the federal government – to prove that illegal immigrants pay taxes. The Internal Revenue Service allows illegal immigrants to file tax returns using a taxpayer identification number and does not report them to federal immigration officials.
Later, she said paying taxes made her feel like a “good person.” She said she had no control over her parents’ decision to come to the United States, but that she wanted to contribute to this country.
“When I paid my taxes, it was the happiest moment of my life,” she said.
But others questioned the legislation, urging lawmakers to limit the benefit only to residents who are here legally.
“They’re still here illegally. … We’re not in a position to give away benefits to people who are truly not eligible for them because they are not residents,” said Christen Varley, president of the Greater Boston Tea Party, which vowed to fight the bills, though she could not attend the hearing. “If you’re not a legal resident of the state, you’re not entitled to in-state tuition. That’s as simple as it is.”
Twelve states, including most recently Connecticut and Illinois, allow such students to pay in-state tuition.