Gov. Deval Patrick showed up unexpectedly at a hearing Wednesday to urge lawmakers to pass legislation that would make certain undocumented immigrants eligible to pay in-state tuition rates at public colleges and universities, cautioning legislators against be caught up in the "hyperbole of immigration."
"It's time for us to fix the law. This really is a matter of fairness," Patrick told the Committee on Higher Education, after apologizing for showing up unannounced.
Patrick, whose support for in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants had to date failed to generate momentum behind the bill, submitted a letter of support to the committee earlier in the day, but said he found himself with a few minutes to spare and chose to testify.
"I just ask you to keep in mind the faces, the lives, and real experiences of the young people whose future is at stake," Patrick said, noting that most individuals who would take advantage of the bill have attended Massachusetts schools their entire lives and are in the country because they arrived here as children with their parents.
In January 2006, the House rejected an in-state proposal, with drew 57 supporters and 97 opponents, with Rep. Robert DeLeo, now House speaker, voting against the proposal. The Senate last year included a ban on in-state tuition rates for undocumented immigrants in a package of reforms that died during budget talks with the House.
In-state rates at UMass are about $13,000 lower per year than rates paid by out-of-state students.
Patrick's testimony came in the middle of a packed hearing on changing the state's in-state tuition laws to allow students of undocumented status to attend any public college or university in Massachusetts, with the exception of the UMass Medical School and the UMass School of Law, at the same tuition rate as legal residents of Massachusetts.
The bills, sponsored by Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz (D-Jamaica Plain) and Reps. Alice Wolf (D-Cambridge) and Denise Provost (D-Somerville), would extend in-state tuition rates to anyone who has attended high school in Massachusetts for at least three years and has earned a diploma or equivalent in the Commonwealth.
In order to qualify for in-state tuition, residents must provide a valid Social Security number or individual taxpayer identification number. College applicants would be allowed to sign a sworn affidavit indicating they had applied or would apply within 120 days for citizenship or legal residency.
Patrick applauded the provision in the bill that would require undocumented immigrant students to take steps to begin to resolve their immigrant status without jeopardizing their access to higher education.
"Are we going to be a part of enabling a permanent underclass, or are we in fact going to create real opportunities?" Patrick asked the committee members.
According to supporters of the bill, 12 other states have adopted laws allowing undocumented immigrants to pay lower tuition rates, including states like Texas, Utah and Kansas that advocates described as more conservative states on immigration policy issues.