Gov. Patrick’s immigrant tuition move sparks renewed debate

Matt Murphy, State House News Service
Nov. 20, 2012

Democratic leaders on Monday put the issue of offering in-state tuition rates to undocumented immigrants into economic terms, while the House’s Republican leadership called for implementation of the new policy on tuition to “be stopped immediately.”

Both Democrats and Republicans on Monday also used the step taken by Patrick to look ahead to the legislative session that begins in January when in-state tuition for a broader class of undocumented immigrants could resurface in a more significant way than in recent years.

Gov. Deval Patrick wrote a letter on Monday to Higher Education Commissioner Richard Freeland informing him that young immigrants granted “deferred status” under President Barack Obama new deportation policy should be offered in-state tuition at public colleges and universities in Massachusetts.

The administration said it based the decision on the availability of federal work permits to the new class of immigrants, which is one of the 16 ways a student can prove lawful immigrant status in Massachusetts to qualify for the tuition break.

Rep. Linda Dorcena Forry (D-Dorchester) said she plans to file legislation reinforcing Patrick’s order when formal sessions resume next year.

“I’m planning on filing in-state tuition come January just to really make sure we can institutionalize it here in the state of Massachusetts but this is really a first step. This is quite exciting,” Forry said.

In recent years, in-state tuition bills for undocumented immigrants have failed to gain much traction. The Legislature last approved such a law in 2004, only to have then-Gov. Mitt Romney veto the legislation. The last vote on the topic came in January 2006 when the House rejected a bill 57-97 that would have allowed undocumented immigrant students who spent at least three years and graduated from a state high school to pay the reduced rate.

Patrick has long supported in-state tuition for undocumented students who have grown up in Massachusetts, attended schools here, and are pursuing a path to citizenship.

Asked whether he might file or push for a Massachusetts-based in-state tuition bill during the coming session, Patrick said, “I hope so, but I hope also that we’re going to get comprehensive immigration reform from the Congress and that will answer a lot of the questions that we in this state have and other states have.”

U.S. Rep. Michael Capuano said for the first time he’s been in Congress he sees a “real opportunity to do comprehensive immigration reform.”

“You can do for the next group of people what you wish had been done for your ancestors,” Capuano said, discussing his own Irish and Italian heritage.

House Minority Brad Jones said that while making higher education affordable to Massachusetts residents is important, the state must be “judicious and fair in how we award such benefits.”

“Governor Patrick’s most recent attempt to usurp the power of the Legislature is cause for concern. Instead of engaging elected officials from both political parties in constructive conversation and debate, he has put his interests, both politically and personally, above those of Massachusetts’ residents,” Jones said in a statement.

Patrick based his decision on the new federal policy started by Obama over the summer with an executive order giving immigrants under 31 who came to the United States before their 16th birthday the opportunity to apply for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals status. Those approved would be protected from deportation for two years, and allowed to apply for work permits.

“While this change in federal enforcement policy applies only to a small segment of our immigrant population and is no substitute for comprehensive immigration reform, it is certainly a step in the right direction,” Patrick wrote to Freeland.

Treasurer Steven Grossman said it was “not true” that undocumented immigrants would be taking admission slots away from legal residents. “No place at one of our public colleges or universities will be denied to any other child or student by virtue of these children being offered in-state tuition,” Grossman said.

Grossman also suggested that training these immigrant students would be beneficial to the future of the state’s economy. “We have over 119,000 jobs that are posted that we can’t fill. I mean we need everyone one of those young people getting a great education, going to a public college or university, whether it’s a community college or four-year university or the UMass system and then taking their place in this workforce. Eighty percent of the people who come out of public colleges or universities stay right here,” Grossman said.