Lieutenant Governor Kerry Healey strode onto a Framingham High School stage Monday to give 148 seniors a special holiday gift: a letter from Governor Mitt Romney informing them that they have won four tuition-free years at the state's public colleges and universities.
There was only one problem: School officials say that at least four of those who received the John and Abigail Adams Scholarship were undocumented immigrants and thus do not qualify for the free tuition program. Federal law prohibits the distribution of government financial aid to those who are here illegally.
Undocumented immigrants' access to public higher education in Massachusetts has been a divisive issue on Beacon Hill this year. Healey and Romney have been outspoken critics of efforts in the Legislature to extend tuition breaks to undocumented immigrants. Healey's unwitting invitation to four such students to attend Massachusetts colleges for free struck some who attended the event as ironic.
''You congratulate everyone during the press conference, but afterward we can't have the scholarship," said Renan, an 18-year-old Brazilian national who did not want to give his last name because he fears being deported. ''I would love to go to UMass-Amherst. I want to major in biology."
Genoveffa Grieci, who chairs the English-as-a-second language department at the high school, which has 2,100 students, said the four undocumented students who received the Romney letter Monday are Brazilian nationals who were brought to the United States illegally by their parents three to six years ago.
The letters, going to 14,000 Massachusetts seniors this month, tell students that their ''outstanding MCAS" test scores qualified them to receive the scholarship.
''We created this merit scholarship program to reward your hard work and achievement," the letters say, adding: ''It is the strongest expression we can make of our commitment to attracting students like you -- the best and brightest in the state -- to our Commonwealth's public higher education system."
According to Ali Noorani, who heads the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, at least 30 other undocumented students statewide are among the recipients of the letters and have called the group to find out if they can, in fact, take advantage of the scholarship.
Noorani tells them that they cannot. ''We say, great job, but the governor wasn't really serious," Noorani said.
Healey declined to be interviewed for this report, but Eric Fehrnstrom, who is the communications director for the Romney administration, said that Healey could not have known that some of the students at the Framingham event were undocumented immigrants.
The scholarship letters are generated solely on the basis of the students' MCAS scores, not immigration status, he said.
''It's impossible to know who is here illegally, because these individuals are hiding from the law," Fehrnstrom said.
''The Adams scholarship is intended to benefit legal citizens. It's not for people who are here illegally," Fehrnstrom added.
Sylvia Smith, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Education, confirmed yesterday that the department makes no attempt to determine students' immigration status before qualifying them for the scholarship.
The US Supreme Court ruled more than 20 years ago that public school systems are required to provide an education for children of undocumented immigrants.
As a result, neither the district nor the state tracks the immigration status of students.
Only when the students would attempt to take advantage of the scholarship would the state know that they are not here legally, said Eileen O'Connor, spokeswoman for the state Board of Higher Education.
To get the tuition waiver, she said, the students have to fill out a federal Free Application for Federal Student Aid form, which asks if they are legal citizens of the United States. If not, they do not qualify for any aid.
The scholarship program, which was established last year by Romney, hinges entirely on their scores on the compulsory Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System test, which assesses proficiency in math and English.
If students obtain a score of advanced on one portion of the test as well as a score of proficient on the other section, and if they place in the top 25 percent of scorers overall in their school district, they would qualify for the scholarship.
Those favoring limits on immigration yesterday that the state should first determine whether students are eligible for the scholarship and remove from the pool those who are not; other eligible students would move up the list.
By awarding the scholarships first and then eliminating the ineligible students later, the program prevents some qualified students from making the cut.
''It means four more Americans aren't getting it," said Lorrie Hall of the Massachusetts Coalition for Immigration Reform.
State Representative Tom Sannicandro, Democrat of Ashland, who attended the Framingham scholarship event, said he spoke with one of the undocumented students after the student received the letter Monday.
Sannicandro criticized Healey, saying she is busy raising her political profile in the western suburbs and not thinking about the impact of her actions on the young people.
''First off, why hand them a letter with a scholarship that they can never use and tell them they can in front of the press?" Sannicandro said.
''The other thing is, what we need to do in Massachusetts is have the most educated workforce we can," he said. ''Some of these kids are the brightest Framingham has to offer, and they will be relegated to menial positions because they can't have this scholarship and education. ''It's a waste, it's unfair, and it's something that really has to be fixed."