Bill might aid immigrants

Cati Vanden Breul

A bipartisan group of state legislators introduced a bill Monday that would make it more affordable for children of illegal immigrants to attend college.

The bill stems from federal legislation called the Dream Act that, if passed, would allow children of illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition at universities.

If the state bill passes, immigrants’ children who attend Minnesota high schools for at least two years would pay in-state tuition rates at state universities, said House bill co-author Rep. Ray Cox, R-Northfield.

“I think it’s a fairness issue,” Cox said. “Most of the people affected by this (legislation) were brought to the U.S. by their parents when they were little children.”

Minnesota allows immigrants to send their children to K-12 schools, said Cox, a former 15-year veteran of the Northfield (Minn.) School Board.

Once immigrant students receive their high school diplomas, it becomes very hard for them to go to college, he said.

“All of a sudden, they get done with (high school), and then what do they do?” he said.

Cox and other House members introduced similar legislation last year, but it did not pass. He said the bill has more support this year.

“I’m much more encouraged this year,” he said. “We need to not divide this as a party issue but keep it a human issue.”

Cox said that because most of the students affected by the legislation are not currently attending college, the state will not lose money by allowing them to pay in-state tuition.

The law would still prevent children of illegal immigrants from receiving a Minnesota state grant, he said.

Sen. Paul Koering, R-Fort Ripley, who supports the bill, said lawmakers have a responsibility to help young people get good starts in life.

“The way I look at it is the U.S. is truly a melting pot of people looking for the American dream,” Koering said.

Immigrants are an important part of the community, said bill co-sponsor Rep. Karen Clark, DFL-Minneapolis.

“They are definitely Minnesota people, and they have the right to get educated and get out of poverty,” Clark said.

“I just feel it is a matter of justice.”

Rafael Gonzalez, a University first-year student and La Raza Student Cultural Center member, said he thinks the state’s bill helps make things fair.

“Culturally, they are Americans, because a lot of them have been here their whole life,” Gonzalez said.

Clark said that when immigrant students know they have a chance to go to college, they will do better in high school.

Vincent Martin, an immigration attorney for Hellmuth & Johnson law firm, said state legislation is a start, but the only way to truly help immigrants’ children is to pass national immigration reform.

That is because illegal immigrants who go to college will still not be U.S. citizens and, therefore, won’t be eligible for legal employment after graduation, he said.

The state of Minnesota can offer students in-state tuition but cannot change their resident status.

If the federal version of the act passes, it would grant conditional resident status to children of illegal immigrants who had lived in the United States for five years. They would also need to have graduated from high school or been accepted into college.

It would allow an immigrant student to become a permanent resident after obtaining a diploma from a junior college or trade school, or completing at least two years of a bachelor’s or graduate program, according to the Web site of U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.

Martin said some families could be in danger if it became public that they were in the country illegally.

“That will definitely be an issue,” he said.

But Clark said the legislation has nothing to do with reporting on immigrant status.

“The University is not in the business of immigration,” she said.

Cox said a committee hearing should be held within two weeks to discuss the bill.