Legislators ponder in-state tuition for immigrants

BOSTON — Natalia Berthet was 5 years old when her parents illegally immigrated to the United States.

She grew up attending Leominster public schools and graduated high school after taking honors classes and advanced placement courses. For 20 years, she remained undocumented.

“I dreamt of college and convinced myself that by the time I was ready to attend, surely we’d be documented and everything would be okay,” she told lawmakers of the Higher Education Committee Wednesday.

Lawmakers are once again considering legislation that would make less expensive in-state public higher education tuition rates available to Massachusetts high school graduates who attended a public high school for at least three years, regardless of their immigration status (H 1078/S577).

Hundreds of Massachusetts students are ineligible for in-state tuition, despite a change in federal immigration law that passed last year allowing some young people to apply for legal status, according to lawmakers and advocates who testified in favor expanding in-state tuition eligibility. The change in federal policy, known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), opened the door for the majority of young immigrants to qualify for in-state tuition, but left some without options, advocates said. DACA requires immigrants to apply for legal status by the time they are 31 years old, and they must have moved to the United States by 16 years old.

Gov. Deval Patrick supports the legislation, and Secretary of Education Matt Malone said the current policy is inequitable and hurts the state’s economic competitiveness. Eighteen other states have adopted laws allowing in-state tuition for high school graduates who meet certain eligibility requirements, including Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New York. New Hampshire lawmakers recently recommended passage of similar legislation.

“These are our kids. They are no different than your or my children,” Malone said. “This is wrong. It is not equitable, and it is not what we value in America.”

Committee Co-Chair Rep. Thomas Sannicandro, D-Ashland, said he supports the proposal and Sen. Michael Moore, D-Millbury, the Senate co-chair, said he wants to get a better understanding of the federal immigration change for children who arrived with parents.

Under the proposal, students would need to attend a Massachusetts high school for at least three years. They would have to show they have registered with Selective Service; have a Social Security number or taxpayer identification number, and filed an affidavit that they have applied for citizenship or are in the process of applying, according to Rep. Denise Provost, D-Somerville, one of the sponsors of the legislation.

Even with DACA, Provost said it was important to pass the bill to “erase the little inequities around its edges.”

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