SALEM, Ore. (AP) — Following a passionate and sometimes heated debate, the Oregon House approved a bill Friday that would extend resident college tuition rates to some young illegal immigrants.
After the vote count showed the bill had passed, supporters watching in the gallery stood up and, holding hands, raised their arms in celebration.
"When I saw those numbers I was very excited," said Hugo Nicolas, 20, who said he entered the country illegally when he was 11. He wants to attend the University of Oregon to study economics and minor in Chinese.
Rep. Michael Dembrow, a Portland Democrat who sponsored the measure, called it a "historic" vote, an important educational and economic step for Oregon.
The House's 38-18 vote sends the measure to the Senate. In the last decade, similar legislation has failed twice in the House after passing the Senate in 2003 and 2011. This time, five Republicans supported it.
On a national level, Republicans have been under pressure to increase their appeal to Latino voters since Mitt Romney lost the presidential election.
The bill is strongly supported by Gov. John Kitzhaber and Senate President Peter Courtney, both Democrats.
"I applaud the House for its bipartisan vote in support of House Bill 2787, which provides tuition equity for all Oregonians," Kitzhaber said in a written statement.
The measure would allow students to qualify for in-state tuition at Oregon's seven public universities if they've attended an Oregon high school for at least three years and lived in the United States for at least five. They'd also have to sign an affidavit swearing they'll apply to legalize their immigration status as soon as they are eligible.
Illegal immigrants would not be eligible for state or federal financial aid, and they'd be subject to the same university entrance requirements as other applicants.
Republicans offered a counterproposal that would have made the bill expire in 2016 and limited the resident tuition rates to students in the country by July 1. It also would have provided more stringent rules on how students would follow through with their pledge to become lawful residents. It was rejected in a party-line vote.
After it failed, Republican Rep. Jason Conger, of Bend, said the House missed an opportunity to adopt a measure with overwhelming bipartisan support. Conger sparred with Democratic Speaker Tina Kotek, of Portland, who interrupted his speech numerous times to ask that he stay on point.
Visibly upset, Conger told the speaker, "I will want to have a follow-up discussion about the stifling of my voice."
The nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Office estimated the bill would increase the state's revenue by $335,000 over the next two years and by an additional $1.6 million between 2015 and 2017.
The Oregon University System estimated 38 illegal immigrant students would take advantage of the resident tuition rates during the next two years and 80 more students would take part in the two years after that.
The difference between resident and nonresident tuition is almost $20,000. At the University of Oregon, resident tuition fees for 15 credits, the average course load, are $9,310 per year.
"I know that this historic vote is really the result of larger historic forces that are at play," Dembrow said, referencing President Barack Obama's promise to pass comprehensive immigration reform.
Portland State University student Victor Mena, an advocate of the bill who became a legal U.S. resident last year, said he sees this as a step toward improving the opportunities for young illegal immigrants.
During the debate, Dembrow referred to Mena as an example of why the state should invest in its young illegal immigrant population.
Mena, a criminal justice major and Persian language minor, said he wants to be an FBI agent after he graduates.
"When I was growing up I watched law enforcement interact with my community and I think that I have a lot to teach, in a way, on how to communicate with other communities and cultures," Mena said.