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R.I. education board OK’s in-state tuition for undocumented students

Illegal immigrants rewarded, foes say

By Erika Niedowski
Associated Press / September 27, 2011

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WARWICK, R.I. - A state higher education board approved a measure yesterday that allows students who immigrated to the United States illegally to pay in-state tuition rates at Rhode Island’s public university and colleges after the General Assembly declined to take up the issue.

The Board of Governors for Higher Education heard hours of public testimony on the policy change from dozens of speakers at a meeting that at times featured cheers, boos, and heckling from opponents and supporters, with both sides saying their position was the fairer one.

The board, 11 of whose 13 members were present, voted unanimously for the measure at the end of the meeting at the Warwick campus of the Community College of Rhode Island.

Board member Eva Mancuso, chairwoman of the committee that gave the preliminary green light to the policy change, said just before the vote that the issue had been studied extensively. She called in-state tuition for illegal immigrants fair and logical.

Under the new policy, in-state rates will be available only to illegal immigrants’ children who have attended a high school in the state for at least three years and graduated or received an equivalent degree. They also have to commit to seek legal status as soon as they are eligible; they will lose the resident tuition if they do not, under an amendment adopted last night. The new policy takes effect in 2012.

In-state undergraduate tuition at the University of Rhode Island is $9,824, compared to $25,912 for out-of-state students. The state has two other public higher education institutions: the Community College of Rhode Island and Rhode Island College.

The General Assembly did not act on a bill this year that would have granted the children of illegal immigrants in-state tuition, legislation that has been introduced every year for years.

Governor Lincoln Chafee threw his support behind the measure Sunday, saying it would improve the state’s “intellectual and cultural life’’ and allow more Rhode Islanders to attend college. In addition, those developments would make for a stronger workforce and would boost the state’s flagging economy, he said.

Several speakers yesterday raised objections to the board taking any action, with some calling the meeting a sham and saying its unelected members would be circumventing the Legislature if they changed policy. No other state that has approved in-state tuition for illegal immigrants did so outside a legislative act.

Other foes said offering in-state tuition to illegal immigrants would reward illegal behavior.

Terry Gorman, executive director of Rhode Islanders for Immigration Law Enforcement, said that the policy change would be akin to “aiding and abetting’’ illegal immigrants.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 12 states have laws allowing children of illegal immigrants to receive in-state rates if they meet certain requirements. Several states have barred such benefits for illegal immigrants.

A federal bill known as the DREAM Act that would allow illegal-immigrant students to remain in the country legally has repeatedly fallen short of the votes needed to pass Congress. Students would be granted legal status if they were under the age of 16 when they entered the US, have been in the country at least five years, and have graduated from high school.

Amanda Pereira, a freshman at Brandeis University in Massachusetts and a graduate of Classical High School in Providence, has testified repeatedly at the State House in favor of the Rhode Island bill. She urged the board to adopt the new policy. She came with her family to the US from Brazil when she was 6. Now 18, she was granted permanent residency last spring. But she has kept up the fight, saying she could have hit an educational dead end herself if her green card had not come through.

“Basically, it’s just a matter of equality,’’ she said.