COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (CNS) — Saying it will improve the lives of future generations, Catholics lauded state lawmakers’ approval of a measure to allow undocumented immigrant students to pay in-state tuition at Colorado’s public colleges and universities if they meet several criteria.
Advancing Students for a Stronger Economy Tomorrow, or ASSET, was passed with Republican backing for the first time. Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper was expected to sign it into law soon.
To be eligible, the students must attend a Colorado high school for three or more years and graduate from a Colorado high school, or attain the equivalent GED; gain admission to an accredited Colorado institution of higher education within 12 months of graduation; and be 23 years or younger at the time of application for in-state classification status.
They also must file an affidavit stating that they have filed for legal immigration status or will file an application as soon as they are eligible.
Republican state Rep. Kevin Priola, who is Catholic, was a crucial swing vote in advancing the bill; he was one of two Republicans who supported the Senate version of the bill as it passed out of the House Education Committee in late February.
This is the first year Priola voted for the measure, which has been up for consideration six times over the past decade. First elected in 2008, Priola pointed to his Catholic background as fueling his decision to support this year’s proposal.
“I have, for most of my life, understood that we are all God’s children and that human dignity is an important part of our faith,” he said. “ASSET will help hardworking and intelligent immigrant children to succeed — helping them and Colorado to have a bright future.”
Priola, who is minority whip in the Colorado House of Representatives, argued during a March 5 floor debate before the final vote, saying, “Immigrant children are hungry to succeed and we need them in this country.”
He added that he sees immigrant children at church every week who have “futures and bright minds at stake.”
“I ask anyone who has issues on this bill to attend Mass with me at noon on a Sunday,” he said to House members.
Priola told The Colorado Catholic Herald, newspaper of the Colorado Springs Diocese, that many of his fellow GOP cohorts understand his “unique perspective as a Catholic and as someone who has also grown up with Hispanics.”
He added, “They also knew that other Republican states like Utah and Texas have the same law. In fact, 44 other states have similar laws.”
The Catholic Charities agencies in Colorado’s two dioceses and one archdiocese — Colorado Springs, Pueblo and Denver, respectively — have supported the measure.
In a joint statement Feb. 26, the agencies said they work every day with people who have difficulty making ends meet, and education is a “powerful antidote to poverty.”
Of the 11 million undocumented people currently living in the U.S., many were brought here by their parents when they were young and had little say in the matter, the statement reads.
“The cultural attachment of these children is strongly American. … They long to contribute in meaningful ways — including working and paying taxes — to the economic prosperity of the only nation they have really known,” the statement says.
A study on the costs and benefits of Advancing Students for a Stronger Economy Tomorrow, conducted in February by the Colorado Fiscal Institute, estimated that 375 undocumented high school graduates would take advantage of in-state tuition costs annually. With current college graduation rates, the study projects that the measure would produce 150 college degree-holding immigrants each year, whose additional taxes would amount to $1,600 per person per year in taxes to state and local governments.
Those who oppose the bill have argued that current federal law bars undocumented immigrants from working legally in the United States, which means in-state tuition rates for undocumented students would not necessarily be beneficial.
However, legal immigration status is not part of admissions requirements at state colleges and universities. Each public college and university in the state will be responsible for creating a plan to implement the new law.
The Higher Education Access Alliance has said it will assist higher education institutions in doing so, along with educating students, parents, teachers and the public about the new opportunity.
Priola said it is important for Coloradans to know the measure will help pave the way for future doctors, engineers, lawyers and other professionals.
“The 21st century will be about competing on brain power and education. These kids will be an important part of the future vitality of our state and nation,” he said. “We need them, their talents and hard work to compete on a global stage.”