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CT Mirror: Tuition break for illegal residents advances--but how many will use it?

By Jacqueline Rabe Thomas, Connecticut Mirror, May 12, 2011

The state House of Representatives Thursday approved a bill to give undocumented residents in-state tuition at public colleges and universities, but advocates say they fear eligible students may be scared off by the requirement that they admit their illegal status.

The bill, approved 77-63 by the House, would require students to sign an affidavit confirming they live in the U.S. illegally and have applied for legal residency. Advocates say this formal admission will deter some students from coming forward, for fear that the affidavit would be used to deport them.

State Rep. Juan Candeleria: 'There is no social benefit for charging these students higher tuition'

Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney, D-New Haven and a champion on the proposal, said the requirement may have a "chilling effect" on participation rates.

"But many will be willing to go forward with that concern in the back of their mind," he said.

Nationwide, 10 states provide in-state tuition for undocumented students and almost all require students sign an affidavit, according to a report from the National Conference of State Legislators. Suman Raghunathan, who tracks immigration policy for the State Legislators for Progressive Immigration Policy, said the affidavit requirement does deter some students.

"Folks are concerned to submit this," said Raghunathan.

"There is fear this will be used in the wrong way. There is a culture of silence about this among those that are undocumented," echoed Lorella Praeli, an undocumented student at the private Quinnipiac College who is an advocate for giving in-state tuition to illegal residents. "There are many who are afraid to come forward."

Praeli, who moved to New Milford from Peru at 10 years old, is not one of them. While testifying before state legislators in March, she said that she is "unafraid and unapologetic" for supporting the in-state tuition bill. But about a dozen other students who testified during that same public hearing said they were speaking for friends who were afraid to come forward.

Lee Melvin, UConn's Enrollment Director, said during a recent interview he's not sure who will have access to these affidavits. He also said he does not know how the university would respond if asked by federal officials for these affidavits.

But Praeli and Raghunathan said it's important to note that the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has never gone after undocumented students in 10 other states that have passed similar measures over the last decade.

"I have never heard of that information being transmitted," said Raghunathan.

A amendment proposed by Republican legislators that would have required school officials to transmit affidavits to federal officials did not make it to the floor Thursday.

College officials estimate there are only a small number of undocumented students enrolled in the state's public colleges and universities, where tuition for in-state students is about a third that charged students from out-of-state.

But Republican lawmakers debating the bill in the House said they worry this proposal would greatly increase enrollment of undocumented students and reduce opportunities for legal residents--particularly at UConn, which is at capacity. The Connecticut State University System and some of the community colleges have space available.

"This could bump some of the legal residents. That's a consideration we can't overlook and can't ignore," said Rep. Timothy LeGeyt of Canton, the ranking Republican on the Higher Education Committee.

"There's winners and there's losers," agreed House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero Jr., R-Norwalk. "Remember folks, when someone gets in, someone gets denied."

Supporters of the bill disagreed.

"Why are we afraid of these people?" asked House Majority Leader J. Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden. "You still have to complete for your place... in that institution of higher education."

Rep. Juan Candelaria, D-New Haven and vice-chairman of the Higher Education Committee, said charging higher tuition from undocumented students hurts the state in the end.

"There is no social benefit for charging these students higher tuition," he said. "It deprives the state of that student's intellectual capacity."

Republican lawmakers also said they are concerned that the state will subsidize the education of people whose parents do not pay taxes. An amendment that would require the affidavit to include that students could only receive in-state tuition if their parents are state taxpayers failed along party lines.

"I maintain there will be taxpayer expenses," LeGeyt said.

A recent report by the legislature's non-partisan budget office said the bill won't necessarily increase higher education costs. The report says the state colleges and universities can adjust the ratio of in-state to out-of-state student as needed to make up for the lower tuition for undocumented students.

The state spent $1.1 billion for higher education last fiscal year, according to a report from the State Higher Education Executive Officers, or $8,450 for each full-time equivalent student.

The bill now heads to the Senate, where final passage is expected. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has said he will sign the bill.