Massachusetts House members last night decisively defeated a controversial bill to extend in-state tuition rates at public colleges to undocumented immigrants, effectively killing the measure for this year.
The 96-to-57 tally surprised advocates of the bill, who believed they had enough votes to win approval in the House and at one point were predicting they may have enough support to override a certain veto from Governor Mitt Romney.
Opponents of the bill appeared well organized, and in recent days they had flooded some legislators with phone calls urging them to vote against the measure. Some lawmakers were told they would face opponents in this fall's elections if they supported the bill.
''I've gotten dozens upon dozens of calls and e-mails, and they were all of one view," said House minority leader Bradley H. Jones, a North Reading Republican, who opposed the legislation. ''Members heard people's apprehension about giving benefits to undocumented people."
The defeat followed an unusually emotional day at the State House. As legislators offered impassioned speeches on the House floor, young students, some of whom said they were undocumented immigrants, gathered on the marble floor outside the chamber, watching the debate on a small television, growing more deflated as the evening wore on and it became clear they would lose.
During the six-hour debate, lawmakers grappled with the thorny questions confronting Massachusetts as it grows more diverse and its economy more reliant on the foreign-born.
''You know these children," said Marie St. Fleur, the Dorchester Democrat who sponsored the bill. ''Many of their parents bag your groceries at the store. They mow your neighbor's lawn. They clean your neighbors' homes. They wait on you at local restaurants. They care for your infirmed. . . . All these children are asking for is the power to pay the same tuition rate as their peers."
Representative Marie Parente, a Milford Democrat, said immigrants who are here illegally should not be given advantages over residents who struggle as she did when she was a child.
Parente was a foster child and attended college later in life because she could not afford to go right out of high school.
''You're going to educate people to take our own technical jobs, the ones our students need?" Parente said.
Other lawmakers said the issue should be left to the federal government and that extending in-state tuition rates to undocumented immigrants amounted to rewarding them for breaking the nation's immigration laws.
Representative George N. Peterson Jr., a Grafton Republican who originally supported the bill based on personal appeals from undocumented students, opposed it yesterday, saying that even if students were permitted to attend college here at in-state rates, they could not legally obtain jobs here.
House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi, who pushed for a vote, said he was disappointed by the final tally.
He had sent a letter to lawmakers yesterday morning urging them to support the legislation, but said he refused to twist arms. His members were getting pressure in their districts, he said, and he did not want to strong-arm them to take a vote that might have hurt them politically.
''I don't want to force people to vote for something that will harm them in their districts," he said after the vote was taken. ''I never did a head-count.
''I didn't want to delay the vote, because [students] wanted to know if it was yes or no so they could" make other plans, he said. ''They deserved that."
Robert Casimiro, executive director of the Massachusetts Coalition for Immigration Reform, said lawmakers finally listened to the public outcry over the issue.
''There seemed to be a groundswell of support in [the State House]. I thought they would get a majority," Casimiro said. ''But you listen to the talk shows and all these people are calling in, and they're vehemently opposed to it. It's like two different worlds."
Romney welcomed the vote.
Allowing undocumented immigrants to pay in-state rates would have extended a significant discount to them. At the University of Massachusetts at Amherst for example, the tuition is $9,300 annually for in-state students and $18,000 for those from outside the state.
The legislation would have applied only to those students who graduated from a Massachusetts high school after attending it for at least three years and signed an affidavit affirming that they intended to seek citizenship.
The debate over in-state tuition rates here has been taking place in the context of a heated national controversy over immigration.
In Washington, the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, sponsored by Senators Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts and John S. McCain of Arizona would require that states extend in-state tuition rates to undocumented students. Before the bill was voted on yesterday at the State House, lawmakers gave near-unanimous approval to the measure urging Congress to act on the matter.
The subject has divided candidates for governor here, with Lieutenant Governor Kerry Healey a leading opponent of the in-state tuition and Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly strongly supporting it.
Ali Noorani, executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, expressed disappointment yesterday. But he said the bill would be back next year.
''We thought we had the votes," said Noorani. ''But in recent days it became clear that the politics of fear pushed legislators to the point where they couldn't support this."