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GOP says Democrats aid illegal immigrants

The Massachusetts Republican Party is injecting the hot-button issue of immigration into state legislative races, mailing some 100,000 fliers accusing Democratic incumbents of voting for state-college tuition breaks for undocumented immigrants.

The mailings, part of a GOP strategy targeting suburban antipathy toward Boston, drew outrage yesterday from a leading immigrant rights group, which called them "incendiary," "hateful," and "misleading." But the GOP and a spokesman for Governor Mitt Romney rejected the criticism, and the spokesman said Romney stands by the letters.

"When Barbara L'Italien voted to give illegal immigrants a tuition break at our state colleges and universities, she also turned her back on some of our best and brightest students here in Massachusetts," said one of the mailings, which was distributed in the district of a first-term representative from Andover. "Barbara L'Italien could have spent that money on scholarships for the state's best-performing high school graduates."

The in-state tuition mailing, which the Republicans sent to households in about a dozen House and Senate districts, is just the first taste of what Democratic incumbents can expect in the final two weeks of the campaign, GOP executive director Tim O'Brien said. The Republicans are following up with fliers targeting bilingual education and the favorable treatment Boston purportedly receives from the Legislature -- all part of the GOP's most vigorous statewide election drive in more than a decade.

The tuition provision would have allowed certain children of immigrants to qualify each year for tuition at less expensive, in-state rates at state colleges and universities in Massachusetts. The provision, which would have applied to about 400 students annually, was included in the state budget that was approved by the State House last summer; that chamber did not take a separate vote on the tuition provision. The Senate did vote on the measure, approving it without a dissenting Democratic or Republican vote.

A separate proposal, proposed by Romney last January, would have waived tuition at state colleges and universities for the top 25 percent of MCAS scorers statewide. It was rejected by the Legislature because lawmakers felt it would disproportionately benefit students from affluent families.

Defending accusations that the mailing is misleading, O'Brien said that lawmakers signed off on the measure when they approved the budget and that Republicans are simply holding Democratic incumbents accountable.

"It got to the governor's desk, and something can't appear on the governor's desk unless the Legislature votes for it," O'Brien said. "What part of 'illegal' don't they understand? They're illegal immigrants. They're not supposed to be here."

Romney vetoed the immigrant tuition provision before approving the budget, and the House sidestepped a vote on whether to override the veto because legislators feared a backlash on the campaign trail. Given that history, advocates for immigrants say, the mailings are misleading.

"It's not only that they're misleading the public on the issue, and on the votes that were taken, they're also using language within campaign literature that scapegoats and demonizes immigrant youth," said Ali Noorani, executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition. "If these kinds of comments were made about any other community, the language of 'us vs. them,' the world would be raining down on the Republicans."

Noorani's group organized a protest outside Romney's office yesterday, calling on the governor to denounce the mailings. Union leaders and students who could benefit from the in-state tuition measure were among the roughly 60 people who gathered at the State House.

"It's immoral that you're using our difficult situation to try to win votes," said Felipe, an 18-year-old student at East Boston High School whose parents brought him here from Colombia when he was 14. Felipe, who did not give his last name in order to protect his parents, said he would like to study chemical engineering at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. His parents, however, cannot afford the $17,861 tuition for out-of-state residents. Massachusetts residents have to pay $9,008.

The measure would have applied only to undocumented immigrants who have lived in Massachusetts for three years, graduated from a Bay State high school, and filed an affidavit saying they were beginning the process of becoming citizens. Proponents say making it easier for those students to go to college would benefit the state in the long run and it is not right to punish students who might have been brought here illegally when they were toddlers.

O'Brien said many of the Democrats who are complaining about the mailings support the idea of allowing the undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition but are scared to profess their support.

L'Italien accused the Republicans of "making me into something I'm not," but she refused to say whether she supports the idea, saying, "it's an issue that I don't believe really affects my district."

Alex Dunn, Romney's political director, said yesterday that the governor has no intention of denouncing the mailings, which he described as accurate.

In announcing his veto last June, Romney said, "I hate the idea of in any way making it more difficult for kids, even those who are illegal aliens, to afford college in our state." But he added that "equally, perhaps a little more than equally, I do not want to create an incentive to do something which is illegal."

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