Oregon Senate hearing draws crowd over bill to lower university tuition for students here illegally
Published: Thursday, March 03, 2011, 8:51 PM Updated: Friday, March 04, 2011, 6:51 AM
By Bill Graves, The Oregonian
Michelle Cole/The Oregonian Portland State University students Enrique Farrera, 29, a graduate student studying post-secondary education, Cindy Reyes, 18, an undergraduate, and Diego Hernandez, 23, a social work major, watched an emotional Senate committee hearing on a television in the Capitol lobby Thursday. The hearing was on a bill that would allow some students brought to Oregon illegally to attend Oregon universities and pay in-state tuition rates. They now must pay out-of-state tuition, which is three times as high.
Hundreds of people showed up for an emotional Senate committee hearing Thursday on a bill that would let youth illegally brought to Oregon attend state universities at resident tuition rates.
Supporters at times broke down in tears as they argued undocumented students, even those who have lived in Oregon most of their lives, should not be barred from the state's public universities by the triple-high price tag of out-of-state tuition.
"These kids are not lawbreakers," said Rep. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland. "They are examples of exactly what we want our young people to do: work hard, get good grades, dream big...They are being sentenced to a life without a future for no fault of their own. In this country we do not punish children for the actions of their parents."
But Cynthia Kendall of Salem urged theSenate education committee to drop the idea of giving children brought to Oregon illegally in-state tuition.
"How is that people can break the law and get a benefit?" she asked. "I don't understand that concept."
The overflow from the hearing on Senate Bill 742 filled three additional rooms, where the hearing was broadcast on big screens. The crowd also spilled into the lobby area outside the Senate and House chambers, where people sat on the floor and hastily assembled folding chairs and watched the proceedings on television.
Diego Hernandez, 23, a graduate student studying social work at Portland State University took time off from school to be in Salem to show his support.
"For me this is a civil rights issue," he said. "I want to be here because I want to see this pass."
Hernandez was born in California, grew up in Oregon and would not be affected by the bill. But he works with a number of high school students who run into the tuition barrier, he said.
"You grow up in this country," he said. "You go to high school here, and you believe you can continue your education, and then you find out you have to pay so much more."
A majority of Oregon's undocumented youths are from low-income Latino families. They find it a challenge to pay resident tuition and fees, which now average $7,100 for undergraduates at the seven state campuses, university officials say. Out-of-state tuition, which is about three times that, would be out of reach, they say. University of Oregon tuition and fees total $8,190 for residents and $25,830 for students from out of state.
The bill would grant in-state tuition only to undocumented students who had lived in the state at least three years before graduating from high school.
It would be unfair for Oregon universities to charge Americans from out-of-state three times what they charge residents who are here illegally, a $17,640 difference, said Jim Ludwick of McMinnville, representingOregonians for Immigration Reform.
"How is it tuition equity?" he asked.
While he argued the bill would cost Oregon millions of dollars in lost tuition, supporters said the proposal would not cost the Oregon University System any money and would in fact probably bring it some revenue. Systemwide, tuition on average covers about $7000 of the total $11,000 cost of educating a student for a year, said Jay Kenton, vice chancellor for finance and administration.
Based on Washington and other states where similar laws are in effect, the university system estimates SB 742 would bring only a handful of illegal youth into Oregon universities, having little effect one way or the other on costs.
The analysis projects that the law would bring 3 undocumented students onto Oregon campuses in 2012-13, 33 the year after and 39 by 2014-15. Even by 2016-17, only 60 students a year would be taking advantage of the bill.
Still, some students who said they need the law to go to college testified before the Senate committee.
Samantha Moreno, 16, of North Eugene High School, said she was born in Mexico, came to Oregon at age 6 and hasn't seen her father since. She said she wants to go to school to become a chef. Her mother often tells her, "when I die, I want to leave you with an education," she said through tears. "I just want to make that happen for her."
Jessica Garcia, also of North Eugene High School, said she's earning a 3.7 grade point average and wants to go to college to study microbiology.
"The most precious thing for me is my education," she said. "Without tuition equity (SB 742), my dream of being a microbiologist may be taken away."
Sen. Frank Morse, R-Albany and member of the education committee, said he's received the most vicious calls in his legislative career over his co-sponsorship of the bill. He said he concluded the proposal was the right thing to do.
"If we by policy create a circumstance by which we take a class of young people and deny them opportunity, are we improving Oregon?" he asked. "No, we are not."
But opponents said the law rewards people who are breaking the law at the expense of Oregonians.
Dee Sutton-Velez said the bill would reward illegal behavior while low-income minority and disabled legal residents are denied help. "We need to help people of diversity that are legal American citizens," she said.
Fred Yates of Lebanon asked why lawmakers were proposing to reward "foreign invaders" with a gift of $70,000 in tuition savings over four years, when "they aren't working to eliminate the foreign invader problem."
Anne Galisky, who produced a film about undocumented Oregon youth called "Papers," warned against using children brought to Oregon illegally as scapegoats.
"To put our pain and suffering and resentment on those young people does us all a disservice," she said. "We need to pass this bill because it is good for all of us. It makes good economic sense. It makes good moral sense."
The committee will spend more time on the bill, said Chairman Mark Hass, D-Beaverton.
"We will look at some amendments," he said, "and take action on it."
Bill Graves and Michelle Cole