DENVER As student activists looked on, a plan to reduce tuition rates for illegal immigrants who grew up in Colorado advanced in the state House on Tuesday, marking a legislative milestone and a significant shift in political opinion.
After debate that was at times testy and emotional, the bill moved to within one step of Gov. John Hickenlooper, who is expected to sign the legislation if it reaches his desk.
After the debate, 22-year-old Victor Galvan was near tears as he told students around him that he never wouldve thought wed be seeing this in this chamber.
Im so proud of you guys, to keep fighting, said Galvan, whos family came to the United States from Chihuahua, Mexico, when he was 8 months old. Galvan currently pays out-of-state tuition rates, which are three times more expensive than in-state rates.
The bill, which already has passed the state Senate and gained initial House approval on a voice vote Tuesday, allows students who graduate from Colorado high schools to pay tuition at state resident rates, regardless of immigration status.
The bills advance this year marks the furthest it has gone in the legislative process in Colorado. Such proposals have been debated in the state for a decade, but both parties have defeated the measures.
At least 13 other states have passed laws to allow illegal immigrants to attend college at in-state rates, including conservative strongholds such as Texas and Utah.
In Colorado in recent years, bills have cleared the Democratic-led Senate, but stalled in the House, where Republicans held the majority.
Democrats now control both chambers, and a handful of Republicans have joined in support of the legislation.
There are lives at stake, and futures at stake, said Brighton Republican Rep. Kevin Priola.
Other Republicans argue that the proposal violates a 2006 state law passed with Democrats in control that forbids nonemergency benefits from going to illegal immigrants.
Republicans proposed amending the bill to refer it to voters, and said they should decide whether tax dollars should be used to benefit illegal immigrants who would pay lower tuition. The amendment failed, but the discussion prompted one of the more heated exchanges when Democratic Rep. Crisanta Duran, the bill sponsor, addressed her colleagues on the House floor.
Im frustrated, there is just an arrogance ... she said, before being interrupted by howls of protest from Republicans. I am hearing arguments, as though only people who can vote in elections are the only people who pay taxes in this country. Really?
Republicans said college should be more affordable to all students.
The issue I have is, we are creating a special group discount, so lets not do that, said Republican Rep. Jerry Sonnenberg.
Galvan said he watched Colorado lawmakers defeat the bill in 2009, the year he graduated high school. He went to a community college for a year.
I spent all my money, he said, adding that hes been attending classes off-and-on since then. He recalls the debate in 2009 as being hard to listen to.
The way that they emphasized illegal immigrant and illegal aliens, I mean really talking to students about students in that way, he said, adding that hes seen a complete turnaround in the dialogue around immigration.
Its just amazing how far weve come, he said.