Archive for Thursday, February 16, 2006

Committee blocks bill to repeal law on immigrant tuition

February 16, 2006

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— A bill to repeal a law that gives some illegal immigrants a break on tuition at state universities and colleges failed Wednesday to clear a House committee on a tie vote.

The 2004 law allows some undocumented, noncitizen students to enroll in universities, community colleges and technical colleges and pay lower tuition rates normally reserved for citizens who are Kansas residents. The law survived a court challenge last year when a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit filed by students from other states who are attending Kansas universities.

The Federal and State Affairs Committee's vote initially stood at 11-10 in favor of the bill repealing the law, but Chairman John Edmonds, R-Great Bend, voted against it, keeping it in committee. Edmonds later said he didn't want to force colleagues in the House to face the politically difficult choice of voting to keep the law in place.

Critics of the law say it sends the wrong message about whether the state will tolerate illegal immigration. The bill was sponsored by Rep. Becky Hutchins, R-Holton, who was visibly upset at the committee's action.

"I'm surprised. I had the chairman's word that if there was a tie vote he would vote to support it," Hutchins said. "How good is anyone's word?"

Edmonds said he made no such promise to support the bill.

"This was a tactical vote," Edmonds said after the committee meeting. "I'm of the opinion that this has no chance of getting out of the House."

Hutchins said she would continue to push for repeal of the law, either through another bill or an amendment on the House floor.

Supporters say people who benefit often have lived and attended school in Kansas for years and note that the law requires them to seek legal status to receive the tuition break.

"I'm not one willing to punish the children for the sins of the parent," said Rep. Tom Burroughs, D-Kansas City.

Kansas is one of nine states that grants in-state tuition to noncitizen students. Current law lets some undocumented immigrants qualify for in-state tuition if they attended a Kansas high school at least three years and graduated or earned a General Educational Development certificate in Kansas.

Last fall, 221 students enrolled under the law, most of them at community colleges, according to the Kansas Board of Regents.

The tuition break can be substantial. A full-time undergraduate from Kansas pays $2,412 per semester at the University of Kansas, compared with $6,638 for out-of-state residents.

At Seward County Community College, which had 94 students enrolled under the law in fall 2005, tuition is $40 per credit hour for residents and $63 for out-of-state students.

Rep. Arlen Siegfried said legislators had a duty to uphold state and federal law and that the Kansas law flies in the face of federal law.

"I, in good consciousness, can't violate that oath," said Siegfried, R-Olathe.

Rep. Lance Kinzer, R-Olathe, said the federal district court ruling sided with the state on technical grounds and didn't address the validity of the law.

He added that the law also placed immigrant students at risk of being deported if they complete their college education before gaining legal status. If that happens, he said, students would be banned from returning to the United States for 10 years.

Melinda Lewis, director of policy advocacy and research for El Centro in Kansas City, Kan., said the committee decision was a victory, but expected more fights.

"I think an amendment would fail, but it depends on the bill," she said.

Lewis said she was surprised that many of the same arguments made during the federal district court case are being repeated, even though that decision upheld the law. U.S. District Judge Richard Rogers concluded the students who were suing the state had no grounds to do so.

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