Educational Opportunity Hearing Packed with Supporters, Including Gov. Patrick

All testify in favor of equal in-state tuition rates for grads from MA high schools

audience3Wednesday, July 20, 2011, BOSTON — "I realize I'm not on the list to testify," said Governor Patrick, as he came to the center of a packed State House hearing room this morning and took a seat among a surprised panel of educators. "But I submitted written testimony and I had a minute, so I just wanted to come by to, um, support that support."

The wording drew a laugh, but the sentiment accurately reflected the fervor of all the testimony heard today by the Joint Committee on Higher Education in favor of House and Senate bills that would allow undocumented immigrant youth to pay the same in-state tuition as their high school classmates. Currently, between 300 and 400 undocumented students every year are charged out-of-state rates, despite having gone to Massachusetts schools for at least three years and earning their high school diplomas here. Since these students are also ineligible for any form of government aid, the out-of-state rate makes college completely unaffordable for practically all of them. As Governor Patrick noted, the bill points out the choice between "enabling a permanent underclass, and creating real opportunities...It's time to fix the law."
Besides the unexpected visit from Governor Patrick, the panel of 17 senators and representatives heard testimony in favor the Educational Opportunity from business owners, legal experts, teachers, faith leaders, guidance councilors, business owners, and numerous immigrant students, including Alan P., who fled Mexico at age five with his mother, desperately seeking shelter from a physically and emotionally abusive father.

"My only dream is to go to college," said Alan, who graduated from high school in June and is now finding it nearly impossible to afford college in the fall. "I left Mexico at five, paying for my father's mistakes, and now I feel like I'm still paying."

Alan appeared on panel with Springfield City Councilor Amaad Rivera, who noted that Springfield "does not have enough educated individuals to fill the middle-class jobs we need filled," a problem that could be partly remedied by the Educational Opportunity bill. "We need to create avenues to give back to the community," he said.

As if to amplify the point, another immigrant student, Deivid Ribeiro, talked about taking a full scholarship at a private school out of state, with a major in physics and plans to become an astronaut."I will be leaving the state because Massachusetts has not provided the means to stay," he said. "It breaks my heart."

Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz echoed the story with her own tale of her father, Franklin Chang-Diaz, the first naturalized citizen to become a NASA astronaut. "That's why I feel so passionately that we need to pass this bill," Senator Chang-Diaz said. "So that we don't squander the talent of Massachusetts' future engineers, doctors, or—yes—even astronauts, and weaken our economic prosperity in the process."

A dozen states of all sizes and political stripes, from Connecticut to Texas, have stopped their own states' brain-drain by passing in-state tuition bills. Testimony submitted by the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation also showed that the bill would bring about $7 million dollars annually to the state's treasury. Educators like Aaron Spencer, former Chairman of the Board of Higher Education, also testified that the bill would displace no native-born students, since there are currently more than enough "empty seats" that this bill would help to fill. And attorneys Phil Curtis and Matt Maiona, of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, testified that the bill would provide youngsters with various opportunities for legalization after their studies, thanks to the ability of employers to sponsor the immigration of highly skilled workers.

Throughout the morning and into the afternoon, the hearing, packed at one point with well over 125 attendees crammed against walls and spilling into aisles, rang with positive words about the immediate benefits to state revenue, the long-term benefits to the state economy, and the immeasurable benefit to the lives of hard-working, innocent young students. As Eva Millona, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition summed it up in her remarks, "We respectfully urge the committee to pass this bill. It's just the right thing to do."