SALEM — In a speech to civic leaders and lawmakers last week, Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber signaled his support for legislation that would make attendance at state universities more affordable for students living in the country without legal permission.
In the 2011 session, proposed “tuition-equity” legislation would have allowed illegal immigrants attending high school in Oregon for at least three years to qualify for in-state tuition at state universities. Similar bills were introduced in previous sessions and all have failed.
But for the coming 2013 session, the governor is outspoken about his support, and Democrats control both chambers of the Legislature.
“It is time to get it done,” said Tim Raphael, the governor’s spokesman.
Retired Sen. Frank Morse, R-Albany, voted against a tuition-equity bill in 2003. In 2011, he sponsored a similar bill, in part because he now believes it’s an education issue rather than an immigration issue.
What sparked his change of heart was a letter from a teacher who described a student who came to the country at a young age with her family — an outstanding student, the letter said, but one who could not afford college tuition.
“What’s really in the best interest of our state?” Morse asked. “To help students improve themselves and, in turn, actually improve the welfare of our state by providing people an opportunity. It didn’t make any sense to deny opportunity.”
At the time, the idea met with pushback from lawmakers who said it represents the state encouraging illegal immigration. Others said it was anything but equal: charging students from outside Oregon out-of-state tuition while someone in the country illegally pays the lower, in-state tuition.
Rep. Jason Conger, R-Bend, said tuition equity fails to address the larger problem. He cautioned he had not seen any specific legislation, but said he believes the federal government should address immigration reform.
“The problem is, the young person didn’t make the decision to come here legally and may not have a realistic option under current law to become legal. It’s not just (the issue) of college tuition,” he said.
Even if the students were to graduate, he said, they could not be legally hired.
“Sounds like a great policy, saddle them with whatever (it) costs to go to college and then say, ‘Sorry, your dream is limited to higher education and no career,’ strikes me as shallow,” he said.
Federal law mandates that children in the U.S. be educated from kindergarten through 12th grade. Students may not legally be asked their immigration status, so estimating how many illegal-immigrant students are in the school system is difficult.
Morse said he’s encouraged that the governor is taking an outspoken position early on. “I think it has a wonderful chance of passing this time,” he said.
Students who live in Oregon illegally are considered out-of-state residents, which means they pay about $20,000 more per year at the University of Oregon than in-state students pay. Specifics on what 2013 legislation could look like are not yet known. The 2011 bill would have required that students intend to become citizens. Whether proposed legislation would clear a path to citizenship is unclear.
Alberto Dorantes graduated from Summit High School in Bend. He’s selling fruit around town with his family, but the 20-year-old would love to study psychology and music.
“There are a lot of young people, I think, that if this passes would be encouraged to go to college,” Dorantes said.
Francisco Lopez, executive director of CAUSA Oregon, a human rights organization, said he’s not surprised to hear the governor’s public support.
“I think it reflects the current climate of the country. Latinos and people of color were very influential politically last election,” Lopez said. He said that his organization has already been in talks with the governor and lawmakers on the issue.
Speaker of the House-designee Rep. Tina Kotek, D-Portland, the granddaughter of immigrants from Eastern Europe, is on record in support.
House Republican Leader-elect Mike McLane, R-Powell Butte, was more cautious, in part because specific legislation has yet to be unveiled.
“Our high school graduates deserve opportunities for employment and higher education,” he said in an email. But, he warned, the state should move cautiously to not “cause unintended consequences.”