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Law Puts College Out Of Reach

Bill Would Offer In-State Tuition For Some Students Who Are Undocumented Immigrants

February 13, 2007
By MARK SPENCER, Courant Staff Writer

Like many high school seniors in the state, Isaac Montiel went to see his counselor for advice about college. She reviewed his grades - found A's and B's - looked over the classes he took, such as honors English and history, then gave him her assessment of his prospects.

"You don't have a chance," is what Montiel heard, despite the counselor's efforts to soften it.

Montiel, 18, arrived in Connecticut from Mexico five years ago after enduring the perils of crossing the border into Arizona illegally to reunite with his mother, who had come three years earlier. As an undocumented immigrant, he would have to pay out-of-state tuition to attend an in-state, state-supported college, which puts it well beyond his reach.

A bill before the state legislature would allow students like Montiel, who lives in West Haven and attends Eli Whitney Regional Vocational Technical School in Hamden, to pay in-state tuition. The proposal is the focus of a hearing before the Higher Education and Employment Advancement Committee at 10:30 a.m. today.

A similar bill the legislature considered in 2005 came close to becoming law, making it through three legislative committees easily before being defeated in the House of Representatives by a 12-vote margin.

The immigration debate has grown more contentious since then, but a activists have organized a concerted campaign to win approval this year. They have framed their case as both one of equal opportunity for students and wise economic policy because of the state's need for skilled, educated workers.

"Every child deserves the opportunity to go to college," said Joyce Hamilton Henry, executive director of Democracy Works. "It's also imperative to the health of our economy."

In 2005, some Republicans wanted to require students to apply for citizenship before being eligible for in-state tuition.

"My problem is I can't get past the fact that they're here illegally," Rep. Claudia Powers, R-Greenwich, said Monday. "I would rather spend our limited funds on folks who are here legally."

Powers voted against the 2005 bill, but said she wanted to hear both sides again before deciding how she will vote this year.

Ten states allow undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition. Although the legality of the state tuition laws was not clear in 2005, they have since been upheld in Kansas and California. Comprehensive immigration reform, likely to be considered by Congress, could provide a path to citizenship for many undocumented immigrants.

The Connecticut bill requires students to have attended two years of high school in state and to have graduated from an in-state school. To get in-state tuition, those students must file an affidavit with the school they will attend stating they have applied for legal immigration status or will apply if they become eligible.

Under current law, many students like Montiel could be deported, along with their families, if they apply to become legal residents.

The Pew Hispanic Center, based in Washington, D.C., has estimated there are between 55,000 and 85,000 undocumented immigrants in the state. Supporters estimated that fewer than 250 students would take advantage of paying in-state tuition, based on the experience of other states.

In-state tuition and required fees this year for undergraduates at the University of Connecticut add up to $8,362, compared with $21,562 for out of state. Costs vary slightly among state university schools. At Central Connecticut State University, undergraduate tuition and fees are $6,442 for in state and $14,764 for out of state in the current year, according to the state Department of Higher Education website.

Even paying in-state tuition would "be a stretch," Montiel said. He would still not be eligible for state or federal assistance. He also is ineligible for many private scholarships because of his status, which he learned after he and a friend in the same situation contacted about 50 organizations that award them.

Montiel's mother, Guadalupe, who worked more than 70 hours a week at two jobs when she first arrived, said the family could find a way, despite the roadblocks.

"I wanted to give him a better future, a better education," she said, while a little boy she babysits squirmed in her lap. "He's a very dedicated person, dedicated to his studies."

Sitting in the dining room of his family's small home in West Haven, Montiel, an only child, recalled the sad years he and his mother were separated.

But he also grew attached to the relatives he lived with during that period and initially had mixed feelings when his mother said she was sending for him.

"I said OK," Montiel said. "I didn't have a choice."

Henry, of Democracy Works, said children who were brought here illegally by their parents should not be held to the same standard as adults.

"It was not their decision," she said. "We are penalizing the children for the decisions of their parents."

In many ways, Montiel appears to be a typical teenager. His English, halting and tentative when he first arrived, is now fluent.

There are BMX bicycle posters on the walls of his small bedroom, a skateboard rests on top of a closet, a computer sits on a cluttered desk beneath his loft bed, and a dozen baseball hats hang on pegs nearby.

His willingness to help out around the house may be less typical. He and his stepfather spent countless hours stripping layers of paint off the woodwork inside their home. Montiel refinished the wood and repainted the place on his own.

Now, he says, all he wants is a chance.

He wants to be a computer engineer and dreams of working for Microsoft some day. He wants to go to a school nearby so he can live at home. It's cheaper and he's had enough of family separation for now.

"A lot of people who have the opportunity, who can take advantage of these things, don't do it," he said. "People like me, we can't."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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