Tuition equity for illegal immigrants passionately debated

Tuition equity for illegal immigrants passionately debated
Hugo Nicolas, shown here during an interview at the Capitol on Monday, testified before a House committee on Wednesday in support of House Bill 2787, which would allow illegal immigrants to pay resident tuition in Oregon's public universities.

SALEM, Ore. (AP) — Oregon lawmakers heard passionate appeals Wednesday from people on both sides of the debate over providing in-state tuition for young immigrants brought illegally to the United States as children.

A state House committee could vote by the end of the week on whether to advance the measure to the full House of Representatives.

Students considered Oregon residents pay about $20,000 less per year at the state's largest universities. Illegal immigrants pay the higher tuition rate charged to out-of-state and international students.

Young illegal immigrants told lawmakers they've worked hard in high school and dream of going to college but could never afford the nonresident tuition.

"You don't know how it is not to be able to dream to go to college, not because you're not smart, but because you have no way to pay for it," said Hugo Nicolas, a Chemeketa Community College student from Salem who was brought illegally to the U.S. when he was 11.

Opponents say the measure would confer a benefit to illegal immigrants that isn't available to U.S. citizens who happen to live in other states.

"I think we're cheapening the value of being a citizen of the United States," Don Nash, of Lake Oswego, told lawmakers.

House Bill 2787 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.

"The only way this bill could be broadly applicable is with the passage of a mass amnesty on the federal level," said Cynthia Kendoll, of Salem.

Resident tuition and fees for 15 credits at the University of Oregon, the average course load, are currently $9,310 per year. For nonresidents, it's $28,650.

"When I think about my future after high school, I think about the opportunities that are being closed because of my legal status, when I worked as much or more than other students." said Karla Castaneda, a junior at Parkrose High School in Portland whose family illegally immigrated when she was 4. "I didn't do anything wrong. I attend school. I get good grades. And I help my community."

Illegal immigrants would be subject to the same entrance requirements as other university applicants and would not be eligible for state or federal financial aid.

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.