Patrick says tuition breaks are part of wider effort to overhaul immigration policy

Governor Deval Patrick said Monday that allowing young illegal immigrants to pay the lower resident rate for tuition and fees at state colleges and universities if they obtain work permits is just one piece in the process to overhaul immigration policy.

“It’s a step in the right direction, but it’s not a substitute for comprehensive immigration reform. We still need that,” Patrick told reporters at the State House.

On Monday, he sent a letter to the Board of Higher Education directing it to revise its policy immediately to allow illegal immigrant students to pay resident rates if they meet all other requirements.

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Patrick’s decision comes five months after President Obama launched the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. The initiative gives immigrants age 30 and younger two-year reprieves from deportation and work permits if they arrived before age 16, had a clean record, and met other requirements. They also must pay a $465 fee.

State Representative Bradley H. Jones Jr., Republican leader of the Massachusetts House, blasted Patrick’s decision.

“The implementation of in-state tuition rates for illegal immigrants should be stopped immediately,” Jones said in a statement. “Regardless of whether or not the governor and I agree on this issue, the topic at hand should be how best to provide an affordable education for all of Massachusetts’ residents.”

He accused the governor of trying to usurp the power of the Legislature, by implementing the policy unilaterally.

Patrick’s decision also drew criticism from a prominent Democrat. State Senator Richard Moore of Uxbridge said he is worried that illegal immigrants might take slots at public colleges from students who are legal residents of Massachusetts.

“Given the limitations on access by taxpayers, it’s a concern as to whether it’s the right policy at this point in time,” Moore said. “Are we going to add faculty? Are we going to add rooms?”

Moore also faulted the governor for imposing the policy unilaterally rather than seeking the Legislature’s approval.

“I don’t think he’s laid out the case for it yet,” Moore said.

The governor says he is on strong legal footing to act unilaterally. He said that because any resident of Massachusetts with a work permit is currently entitled to in-state tuition rates, his order merely clarifies that these young illegal immigrants, so long as they have a work permit, will be covered under that policy.

“Not every policy requires a legislative review,” he said.

Patrick’s announcement, reported by the Globe on Sunday, dramatically slashes the cost of a college education for immigrants who until now had to pay out-of-state rates.

For example, the flagship University of Massachusetts Amherst costs $26,645 this year for nonresidents, compared with $13,230 for residents, while Bunker Hill Community College costs $5,640 this year for residents, compared with $13,880 for nonresidents. And Framingham State costs $8,080 for residents this year, compared with $14,160 for nonresidents.

“These are not outsiders, these are residents and taxpayers who pay their dues to Massachusetts,” Eva Millona, executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, said before hosting an annual Thanksgiving lunch celebrating new citizens at the State House.

Millona said the new federal program is a “temporary fix” until Congress passes a comprehensive overhaul of the immigration system.

US Representative Michael Capuano, who spoke at MIRA’s lunch, said he was hopeful changes to federal immigration law would be addressed in this congressional term, but problems must be addressed in the meantime.

“We have a lot of mistakes we’re trying to fix with Band-Aids. I hate the Band-Aid approach, but sometimes its necessary,” he said.

Lieutenant Governor Timothy P. Murray said it made economic sense to help young immigrants earn an education and a productive living after they attended public elementary and high schools.

“It’s making good on an investment so many of our taxpayers have already made,” Murray told the lunch crowd. “It’s important that we realize the full payoff of that investment by allowing them to go on.”