Advocates try new message on illegal immigrant tuition

Jonathan J. Cooper / The Associated Press /

SALEM — Advocates are touting the economic and educational benefits of allowing young illegal immigrants to pay in-state college tuition, trying out a new pitch in their effort to lower educational costs for high school graduates brought illegally to the U.S. by their parents.

In a news conference Monday, leaders from several of Oregon’s largest business groups said the tuition measure would help ensure an educated workforce.

“We all know that access to post-secondary education leads to significantly higher wages for individuals and increased economic success for businesses,” said Greg Miller, a senior official from Weyerhaeuser Company and a board member at Associated Oregon Industries. “By providing this opportunity for more students, we’re strengthening the state’s economy.”

The issue has stoked strong emotions on both sides for years. Critics say the state shouldn’t subsidize tuition for people who won’t be able to legally work in the United States when they’re done with school. Critics also contend that providing benefits for illegal immigrants creates incentives for people to cross the border illegally, and offers illegal immigrants a financial benefit that isn’t available to American citizens living in other states.

“Somewhere along the line somebody’s got to start thinking straight on this issue,” said Jim Ludwick, a vocal opponent of illegal immigration. “If we give a $20,000 discount to a student who can’t use their degree because they can’t work here, how much sense does that make?”

Lawmakers will hear from the public in committee hearing on Wednesday. The measure seems primed for success this year with support from Gov. John Kitzhaber and legislators from both parties. Two years ago, a similar measure passed the Senate but did not get a vote in the House amid opposition from Republican leaders.

Twelve other states allow resident tuition for illegal immigrants, according to the National Immigration Law Center. Colorado lawmakers are considering similar legislation that has already passed a Senate committee.

The economic arguments are not new, but proponents are putting a sharper focus on them after failed efforts in years past.

“Without tuition equity, many Oregon students will not be able to get above a high school education and will not have access to an associate or bachelor’s degree and the increased earning potential that comes with both,” said Andrew Colas, president and chief operating officer of Colas Construction of Portland and a board member at the Oregon Business Association.

Representatives of the Portland Business Alliance and the Oregon Association of Nurseries also backed the measure, House Bill 2787. Twelve lawmakers have signed on as co-sponsors of the measure, including three Republicans.

The measure would allow illegal immigrants to pay resident tuition at Oregon’s seven public universities if they’ve graduated from an Oregon high school and lived in the United States for at least five years, at least three of them in Oregon. They’d have to sign an affidavit swearing they’ll apply to legalize their immigration status as soon as they’re legally eligible.

Illegal immigrants can’t legally work in the United States, but proponents say President Barack Obama’s push for a federal immigration overhaul could create a pathway to citizenship for many. They say children have no control over the decision to immigrate without legal documents.

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