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April 4, 2013

House committee debates ban on in-state tuition for immigrant children

INDIANAPOLIS — Two years after banning the children of undocumented immigrants from paying in-state tuition rates at the state’s public universities, Indiana legislators are debating whether to roll back that prohibition.

The Republican-controlled Senate has already passed a bill that would partially roll back the ban, to cover students who started college when the 2011 law went into effect.

But now, some members of the House Committee on Education, including its influential Republican chairman, Rep. Bob Behning of Indianapolis, want to clear the path to college for more immigrant children.

Behning wants to expand Senate Bill 207 to allow the children of undocumented immigrants to pay the same tuition rate at the state’s public universities as other Indiana residents do.

Under an amendment he proposed Thursday in committee, those children would have to meet certain conditions to qualify. Among them: They’d have to start attending high school in Indiana as a freshman, graduate on time with at least a C average, and have no criminal record.

“We’d be holding them to a higher standard than we do other Hoosiers,” Behning said.

Behning’s committee heard testimony on the bill Thursday. The bill is scheduled for a committee vote next Tuesday.

Supporters of Behning’s proposal said children shouldn’t be priced out of college because their parents decided to immigrate illegally. They pointed out that under the new federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy, a vast majority of undocumented children won’t be deported.

“Look into your hearts and ask, ‘What are we doing to these kids?’” said Rep. Rebecca Kubacki, the first Republican Hispanic in the Indiana General Assembly and a sponsor of Senate Bill 207. “These kids didn’t break the law, their parents did.”

But opponents argued the state shouldn’t be subsidizing a college education for the children of people who violated immigration laws.

Rep. Jim Lucas, a freshman Republican from Seymour, said the state’s ban on in-state tuition for undocumented students doesn’t bar them from attending college, it just charges them the much higher out-of-state rate.

Angela Hicks, one of the hundreds of students impacted by the 2011 ban, disagreed. Hicks was brought here by her parents illegally when she was 11, graduated with honors from high school and had a 4.0 grade point average when she dropped out of Indiana University in 2011 because she couldn’t afford to pay the out-of-state rate of $26,000.

“That $26,000? That’s more than my mom and I make combined,” Hicks said.

Senate Bill 207 and Behning’s amendment are politically volatile. Several members of the House education committee have told the bill backers that while they support the bill and the proposed changes, they fear the political repercussions when they run for re-election.

The bill has raised the ire — and the organizing power — of some Tea Party members and anti-immigration groups. Cheree Calabro, co-founder of IFIRE (Indiana Federation for Immigration Reform & Enforcement) voiced her anger about the bill during Thursday’s committee hearing.

She said illegals had invaded the state, were competing for scarce jobs, had broken the immigration laws and were now asking to be treated like other citizens. “Please explain to me why they get to lobby you?” she asked committee members.

As of Thursday, support for the bill and Behning’s amendment appeared split, and bill backers were  concerned the legislation might not make it out committee.

Kubacki pleaded for support: “This is a huge decision. It affects the lives of children,” she said, before asking the committee to send the bill to the full House.

Thirteen states have already passed laws that allow the children of undocumented immigrants to pay in-state college tuition rates. The legislatures in Oregon and Colorado recently passed similar laws.

Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. She can be reached at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com.

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