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Patrick backs illegal immigrants on tuition

Urges approval of in-state level

By Maria Sacchetti
Globe Staff / July 21, 2011

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Governor Deval Patrick, just weeks after defying federal immigration officials over their controversial Secure Communities program, unexpectedly appeared at a packed State House hearing yesterday to urge lawmakers to let illegal immigrants pay the reduced resident rate at state colleges and universities.

The surprise visit appeared to signal an aggressive new stance by the Patrick administration on illegal immigration and a sharp departure from the governor’s first term, when he shied from incendiary issues such as tuition and driver’s licenses for unauthorized immigrants.

Patrick’s appearance yesterday could inject new life into a bill that has languished in the Legislature for years. Only hours before he arrived, hopes had seemed dim for legislation that passed the Senate in 2005 but failed in the House and has not budged since, with little visible support from leadership in either chamber.

“I know they’re going to hear the arguments on both sides,’’ he said after he addressed the Joint Committee on Higher Education about two bills that would allow students here illegally to pay in-state tuition. “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.’’

Massachusetts has been a focal point in the debate over illegal immigrant students, drawing national attention last year when Harvard student Eric Balderas was arrested for being here illegally, then allowed to stay.

Harvard’s president and others have endorsed federal legislation known as the Dream Act that would allow such students to apply for legal residency, but that, too, has been stalled for years.

In the absence of federal action giving illegal students a path to residency, advocates for immigrants have lobbied states to make public colleges more affordable for illegal immigrants, many of whom have lived here since they were children. Advocates seize on what they call a discrepancy in federal law: A 1982 US Supreme Court decision guarantees undocumented students a K-12 education, but they are not entitled to go to college and they are barred from receiving government financial aid.

Twelve states, including Connecticut this year, allow such students to pay resident tuition, according to the National Immigration Law Center.

In Massachusetts, illegal immigrants pay the nonresident rate, which is double or triple the price paid by residents, depending on the school. The University of Massachusetts Amherst cost nonresidents $23,630 last year in tuition and fees, compared with $11,734 for state residents.

“We understand that the lawmakers cannot fix the federal situation, but they can fix Massachusetts law,’’ said Eva Millona, executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition.

The House and Senate bills would allow students to pay in-state tuition if they meet certain criteria, such as attending high school in Massachusetts for at least three years and promising to apply for legal residency as soon as the government allows it.

Yesterday, the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation estimated that passing the legislation would boost the state’s revenues by about $2 million in the first year, if 315 to 365 students enrolled, and up to $7.4 million by the fourth year, when the enrollment could more than double.

The foundation’s president, Michael Widmer, estimated that Massachusetts is home to more than 14,000 illegal immigrants under age 18, nearly 2 percent of enrollment in public schools statewide. Since such students are not eligible for state or federal financial aid, Widmer said the cost to the state would be minimal.

During his first race for governor, in 2006, Patrick was a vocal supporter of in-state tuition for illegal immigrants. But he did not make it a priority during his first term. Since being reelected Patrick has taken a bolder stance on several personnel and policy issues. Last year Patrick said he thought the state could not grant in-state tuition to illegal immigrants without changes in federal law, but yesterday he did not mention that concern.

House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo voted against in-state tuition in 2006, when it failed in the House, but yesterday he would not comment because the bill is still in committee, said his spokesman, Seth Gitell. Senate President Therese Murray could not be reached for comment last night, but last year the Senate approved a measure to bar illegal immigrants from higher education benefits, though it did not become law.

Yesterday a State House hearing room was filled with supporters of the bills.

Conrado, a 23-year-old who graduated from Somerville High four years ago, said he still has a drawer filled with his hopes from high school: his yearbook, containing pictures of friends who have already graduated from college; his SAT scores; and a state scholarship for high MCAS scores, which he could not claim because he has been here illegally from Brazil since he was 13.

“It shouldn’t be this way, and it doesn’t have to be,’’ he told the panel yesterday, declining to give his last name for fear of deportation. “We know this bill makes sense for the Commonwealth.’’

Isabel Vargas of Methuen, a 19-year-old student here illegally from the Dominican Republic since she was 8 years old, said she had no control over her parents’ decision to come to the United States, but that she wants to contribute to this country. She drew laughter when she waved a receipt from the US government showing that she paid her federal income taxes this year, $476.08, 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.

Alan, an 18-year-old student from Waltham, wept as he described having been abused as a child in Mexico, then coming to the United States illegally and thriving in school. He has been accepted to a private college, but doubts he can afford the tuition.

“I was 5 years old,’’ he told the committee about coming to this country, “and every day I’m paying for my father’s mistakes.’’

But critics said illegal immigrant students should not benefit from their parents’ decision to break the law. Though proponents of the bill say it would help the economy, critics have said it would offer benefits to illegal immigrants that US citizens from other states cannot claim.

“They’re still here illegally,’’ 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.’’

Steve Kropper, cochairman of Massachusetts Citizens for Immigration Reform, which advocates tougher immigration laws, criticized the governor for championing the tuition issue when the state’s economy is still hurting.

The bills are sponsored by Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz of Boston, Representative Alice Wolf of Cambridge, and Representative Denise Provost of Somerville, all Democrats.

Maria Sacchetti can be reached at msacchetti@globe.com.