Catholic groups back in-state tuition for undocumented youth

Local Catholic officials are supporting legislation that would allow about 900 young immigrants who are in Massachusetts without legal documents to pay in-state tuition rates at public colleges and universities.

Calling it a "common sense issue," Debbie Rambo, president and CEO of the Catholic Charities Archdiocese of Boston, said the pending House and Senate bills would continue the state's investment in educating its young people.

"Unlike students who come to Massachusetts to go to school here and then leave, we have students who are based here and who want to stay here," Rambo said. "We're already investing in these young people."

The legislation, which is currently before the Joint Committee on Higher Education, would apply to undocumented immigrants who attend a Massachusetts high school for at least three years, and who graduate or earn an equivalent diploma.

The legislation would affect those immigrants who currently do not qualify to pay in-state tuition rates through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a federal program instituted by President Barack Obama's administration in June 2012.

The Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation estimates that 910 "unauthorized" students graduate from state high schools every year. If those students could attend public colleges at in-state rates, those institutions would see more than $7 million a year in new revenues.

Besides the increased revenue for state colleges and universities, the legislation would make a college education more affordable for the young undocumented immigrants, many of whom were brought to the United States when they were small children and have lived most of their lives here, even attending public schools from kindergarten through the 12th grade.

"These students have obeyed their parents. They've applied themselves to their studies, and for us to tell them now that all that does not matter, I think that sends a bad message," said State Rep. Denise Provost, D-Somerville, the main sponsor of the house bill.

The difference between paying in-state tuition and the rate that out-of-state students pay to attend college in Massachusetts is striking. At the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, a state resident will pay $25,674 while a student from outside the state will pay $42,007.

"These students have done well in high school. They've graduated and they're academically prepared to go to college, but if they have to pay as much tuition as the children of Chinese billionaires would pay to UMass, then they're just not going to be able to do it," Provost said.

During a July 15 public hearing, James F. Driscoll, executive director of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference, testified in favor of the bill, which he said "would make the college experience possible for more Massachusetts high school graduates by providing the same opportunities to those young adults currently excluded from certain benefits due to their immigration status."

Driscoll said the reasoning behind the policy was "clear," adding that young undocumented students who complete high school and want to attend college have demonstrated a desire to be productive members of society.

But speaking at the same public hearing, State Rep. Marc Lombardo, R-Billerica, voiced opposition to the bill, which in past years has been derailed by critics and lawmakers who are skeptical about the idea of extending state benefits to people who are in the country illegally.

According to a WGBH report, Lombardo told the Higher Education panel that the state already spends $2 billion a year in services and benefits for undocumented immigrants. "The idea of expanding in-state tuition rates to those who are here illegally in the country, I think, is fundamentally wrong," Lombardo said.

Meanwhile, Republican state lawmakers have filed their own legislation to overturn former Gov. Deval Patrick's 2012 directive that allows undocumented immigrants in Massachusetts who qualify for DACA to pay in-state tuition rates. Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, has not reversed that directive since taking office in January.

The Bay State is not alone among states that currently allow undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition rates. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 20 states offer in-state tuition to unauthorized immigrant students, 16 by state legislative action and four by state university systems.

Only six states have passed laws to prohibit unauthorized immigrant students from in-state tuition benefits.

Provost argued that it is "not an American tradition to punish children" for their parents' decisions to immigrate illegally. She added that allowing a small minority of undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition is in line with the larger goal of cultivating a college-educated workforce, particularly in a state where the leading industries are knowledge-based.

The Massachusetts Catholic Conference has endorsed previous versions of the legislation. In his July testimony, Driscoll noted how the Catholic Church in Massachusetts serves the state's immigrant population in its parishes, schools, charitable endeavors and other institutions.

For many young would-be college students who do not have a legal immigration status, Driscoll said Massachusetts is the only home they have ever known.

Said Driscoll, "It would simply be wrong to deny higher educational opportunities to students based largely on the immigration status of their parents."

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