The state that's famous as the home of Yale University might be making it a little easier for undocumented students to go to college.
A bill that extends the less expensive, in-state tuition rate at Connecticut's public colleges and universities for students without legal immigration status passed the House of Representatives on Thursday.
After a lengthy afternoon debate, the bill passed on a 77-63 vote, with 13 Democrats joining the General Assembly's minority Republicans in opposition. It now moves to the Senate for final legislative action. Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has indicated that he supports the legislation.
While opponents said the legislation creates an unjustifiable loophole to take advantage of the cheaper tuition, proponents said the bill is need to help students whose parents brought them to the U.S. as children without proper, legal documentation. It's a chance, they argued, to help put these students on the path to citizenship and become productive citizens.
"Why are we afraid of these people? These are our children. These are the children we need to embrace, encourage and make them part of our future," said House Majority Leader Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden.
Under the proposal, students without legal status would be considered eligible for the in-state rates if they live in Connecticut, complete at least four years of high school in Connecticut and are enrolled at the University of Connecticut, the Connecticut State University system schools, the community-technical colleges or Charter Oak State College.
The in-state tuition discount can be sizeable. At the University of Connecticut, the in-state rate for students who live off campus is $10,416 versus $26,880 for out-of-state commuter students. At the four state universities, the difference in tuitions is $8,043 versus $18,408; and $3,406 versus $10,178 at the community-technical colleges.
Opponents said they fear the legislation might take away spots in the state's higher education system from legal, tax-paying residents.
"When someone gets in, someone gets denied. There's a winner and there's a loser," said House Minority Leader Lawrence Cafero Jr., R-Norwalk. "We're changing the rules that might be very, very unfair to a lot of people."
Rep. Juan Candelaria, D-New Haven, the lead proponent of the bill, said the legislation would not mean fewer slots for legal citizens applying the state schools. And he stressed that only an estimated 250 students are expected to be affected.(Yale University won't be affected either; it's a private, not public, school.)
Throughout much of Thursday's debate, lawmakers recalled their own families' immigration experiences.
Rep. Tony Hwang, R-Fairfield, whose parents immigrated to the U.S. from Taiwan, said he was voting against the bill out of respect for his mother and father and other immigrants who came to this country legally.
"Those same immigrants who made an earnest and sincere effort to obtain the American citizenship, they went through hoops and obstacles to live the American Dream," he said.
Rep. Selim Noujaim, R-Waterbury, an immigrant from Lebanon, recalled arriving in the U.S. in 1971, only knowing how to say "thank you" in English. His first job was in a textile mill in Waterbury and he worked his way through school, eventually obtaining citizenship.
"No one offered me a tuition break. I had to work for every single penny that I earned," Noujaim said. "I don't know how right and how fair it is just to hand somebody something without working for it."
Yet Rep. William Tong, D-Stamford, the son of Chinese immigrants, spoke on the House floor how his family was able to remain in the U.S. after his father, in a last-ditch effort, wrote a letter to then-President Richard Nixon about how he had discovered the American dream and wanted to stay in the country after being reported to immigration authorities. About a week before the family planned to leave voluntarily, a letter arrived telling them they could apply for citizenship.
"If Richard Nixon had not given my father a chance, I would not have had the opportunities I've known," said Tong, who likened his family's opportunity providing the students in-state tuition rates.
"This bill is not about undocumented or illegal people. It's not about criminals," said Tong. "It's about people just like us, who because of circumstance, because of history, because of opportunity, are one-half shade different than we are."
The legislation requires the students to file an affidavit with their college, stating they have applied to legalize their immigration status or will do when they are eligible to apply.