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Hundreds Turn Out To Support In-State Tuition For Undocumented Students


March 15, 2011

Diego Aguilar of Norwalk told legislators Tuesday that his parents "worry, fight and struggle" to pay his out-of-state tuition fees at Norwalk Community College.

Aguilar graduated as valedictorian of Brien McMahon High School in Norwalk last year, but because he is an illegal immigrant he does not qualify for the lower tuition rate available for state residents. His parents brought him to Connecticut from Mexico when he was 8.

Aguilar, who wants to be an engineer or study economics, said he always knew that his status was different from that of the other kids. But he worked hard, earned a 4.6 grade point average and was admitted to Cornell University and the University of Connecticut. He couldn't afford those schools.

Now he's worried that his family will be unable to afford further education for him when he graduates from community college.

Aguilar was among the hundreds who converged at a legislative hearing on a bill that would allow illegal immigrants who live in Connecticut to attend the state's public colleges and universities at in-state tuition rates, rather than pay the far costlier out-of-state tuition.

For Aguilar, out-of-state tuition at Norwalk Community College this year is $10,178, compared with $3,406 for in-state students. This year's tuition at the University of Connecticut is $8,064 for Connecticut residents, compared with $24,258 for out-of-state residents.

The higher education committee heard testimony, from undocumented students, lawyers, clergy community leaders and others — almost all expressing support for the bill.

The bill's backers say they hope that the legislation — which was vetoed by Gov. M. Jodi Rell in 2007 — will pass this year. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has pledged to sign the bill if the legislature passes it.

Senate Majority Leader Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven, said that it is in Connecticut's best interests to pass the bill because the state will benefit from having a highly skilled workforce.

But, he said, "the most compelling reason to expand opportunity for all Connecticut high school graduates is fairness. Children who were brought to the U.S. by their parents should not be penalized for something over which they had no control."

State Rep. Roberta Willis, D-Salisbury, co-chairwoman of the higher education committee, said "it does seem illogical" to educate children from pre-kindergarten through high school and then "shut the door."

State Rep. Vincent J. Candelora, R-North Branford, argued that Connecticut could be sued by out-of-state residents who might contend that if illegal immigrants are granted in-state tuition then all out-of-state residents should receive it.

He also said the bill could conflict with federal law. As he later explained, "Illegal immigrants cannot be employed, so we'll be passing a law encouraging education and employment in the state of Connecticut when they can't be employed."

Amanda Gutierrez, a student intern at Yale Law School's Worker and Immigrant Rights Advocacy Clinic, said the bill as written should withstand any legal challenge. Connecticut's proposed bill requires not only residency in Connecticut but also graduation from a Connecticut high school and attendance at a state high school for four years, Gutierrez said.

Maria Praeli, a 17-year-old junior at New Milford High School, said her friends all spent Tuesday at a college fair, but she didn't see much sense in going because she is so uncertain about whether she will be able to attend college.

"I stand here and ask all of you who are opposed to passing this bill, why do you want to crush my dreams?" said Praeli, who was brought to Connecticut from Peru when she was in kindergarten. "I, like other undocumented youth, am here. We are here. We are your neighbors, we are your kid's friends, we hold the door for you, we are here and we just want a fair chance and an opportunity."

Several members of the higher education committee said their constituents worry that an illegal immigrant might squeeze their own child — a U.S. citizen — out of space at a competitive state school like the University of Connecticut.

State Sen. Beth Bye D-West Hartford, co-chairwoman of higher education, said that college admissions are "not as simple as one in, one out… It's not an exact science."

State Sen. Toni Boucher, R-Wilton, a member of the higher education committee, said the concerns of illegal immigrants are a "federal issue" and the state should wait for the federal government to act before passing this bill. To do otherwise, Boucher said, is "putting the cart before the horse."

Rabbi James Prosnit of Bridgeport countered her argument. "I would think that both carts can ride simultaneously."

Cynthia Calderon, 24, an undocumented student from Stamford, said that she is about to graduate from Norwalk Community College with an associates degree in medical management.

Calderon said she would like to go on to the University of Connecticut, but she can't afford out-of-state tuition. "I don't want my education to stop here," she told legislators. "My dream is to continue for even higher education to become a social worker to help and make a difference in my community."

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.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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