After a lengthy filibuster by Republican opponents, the state Senate gave final legislative approval Tuesday night to a bill that will allow undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition rates at Connecticut's public colleges and universities.
The vote was 21-14.
The bill already has passed the House, and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has said he will sign it. "This bill isn't controversial, it's common sense," Malloy said after the Senate vote Tuesday.
The drawn-out debate - eight hours and 50 minutes - was sharply out of proportion with the number of undocumented students that supporters of the bill say will take advantage of the lower in-state rate - about 200 a year. But like much of what gets discussed at the Capitol, the symbolism of the measure outweighed its impact.
For its supporters, the bill is a matter of fairness for immigrants' children who were brought to the U.S. illegally through no choice of their own. "It is not the American way to visit the shortcomings of the parents on the children," said Senate President Pro Tem Donald Williams.
Sen. Beth Bye, D-West Hartford, noted that the measure had the support of a broad coalition that included the leaders of the state's public colleges as well as its Catholic bishops.
"I think this is a compassionate law, trying to give people a leg up," said Bye, co-chairwoman of the legislature's higher education committee. "We can make a difference in the lives of these students."
Other supporters said that having more college-educated people would only enrich the state - and bolster its economy.
But critics expressed concern over the message that such a proposal sends. Sen. Kevin Kelly, R-Stratford, called it "bad public policy" because it rewards people who break the rules.
He asked how he would respond to a constituent whose child was denied entrance into the University of Connecticut because the slot was taken by the child of an undocumented immigrant. "I'm not so sure I can go back to that person and explain to them why breaking the rules is a good thing," he said.
Sen. Joe Markley, R-Southington, expressed sympathy for the children of undocumented immigrants, but said that becoming a U.S. citizen should be the ultimate goal. "I think our compassion is misguided when we do anything that takes away the tremendous priority of citizenship," he said.
Proponents of the measure say that it won't cost taxpayers a dime, that students would still have to pay for their educations, albeit at the reduced, in-state rate. The nonpartisan Office of Fiscal Analysis, which reviewed the bill, said that it would pose no financial burden to the state.
To qualify for in-state tuition, which typically is one-third lower than the rate charged to out-of-state students, an undocumented immigrant would first have to attend a Connecticut high school for four years and graduate. He or she also would have to sign an affidavit promising to seek legal status.
"We're talking about 200 students out of 120,000 that are currently enrolled in our higher education system," Bye said. And the majority of those students, she said, would attend community colleges, not the University of Connecticut.
But Republicans questioned that number. "If New York or Rhode Island ... didn't have this policy, and you lived in one of those states, what would you do? I would move," Senate Republican leader John McKinney said. "And every parent would move for the option of getting their child a college education that's affordable. So if Connecticut is offering this ... and other states aren't, are we then going to attract more people?"
Republicans called 10 amendments, including one that would have required undocumented students to remain in Connecticut for four years after they graduated if they wanted to receive the in-state rate. Each amendment was shot down, most along a strict party-line vote.
Democrats repeatedly pointed to the steady stream of immigrants they say have enriched the nation's history, and many lawmakers shared personal tales of the hardships experienced by their own immigrant ancestors.
"I have a lot of different nationalities ... running through my blood veins, but I'm also part Choctaw," Williams said. "From the Choctaw point of view, I would say that many of you are undocumented. It really depends on how you look at this."
One Democrat, Sen. Paul Doyle of Wethersfield, broke ranks and voted with the Republicans against the measure.
The House of Representatives endorsed the bill earlier this month. A similar measure passed both chambers in 2007, but it was vetoed by Gov. M. Jodi Rell. This time, Malloy has pledged to sign it.
"At a time when we need to be helping our state's young men and women prepare for an ever-changing economy and compete with their counterparts in China, Japan and elsewhere, helping to make a college degree more accessible and affordable for those students who choose to pursue one is critically important," Malloy said in a statement moments after the vote. "I look forward to signing this bill into law, and with it, an increased opportunity for our state's students to succeed in whatever path they choose."
From up in the Senate gallery, about a dozen students tracked and tweeted the long debate.
One of them, Cynthia Calderon, 24, is a recent graduate of Norwalk Community College. The middle child of five, she came to the U.S. from Peru with her parents, undocumented immigrants, about a decade ago.
She graduated from Westhill High School in Stamford and has an associate's degree in medical office management, but she said she hopes to continue her studies at UConn, where she intends to pursue a degree in social work.
"I want to transfer to a four-year college and in the future get my master's degree," Calderon said. "But right now, it's just not affordable."
When the vote finally came, about 9:40 p.m., the students erupted in cheers.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at