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Tuition vote angers students

Panel recommends repeal of law allowing immigrants in-state fees

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At the Capitol Thursday, Luz Robles, left, Office of Ethnic Affairs director, discusses HB7 with Weber State student Victoria Moreno and U. student Maria Martinez.

At the Capitol Thursday, Luz Robles, left, Office of Ethnic Affairs director, discusses HB7 with Weber State student Victoria Moreno and U. student Maria Martinez.

Laura Seitz, Deseret Morning News

It was tough for Sarah to watch the debate on her future Thursday, as the House Education Committee voted to recommend repealing the law that makes her college education affordable.

"It made me angry," said Sarah, a junior at the University of Utah who asked not to be identified by her real name because she is undocumented. She's paying in-state tuition because of a law passed in 2002 granting it to undocumented students.

"There's a whole generation of these kids in the state and nation," she said. "One day this generation . . . will have kids of their own. The Legislature will have to account to our community, even if it's in the future."

Those children would be natural citizens of the United States. It's the "sandwich" generation — largely children who were brought here by their parents and who have grown up in the American culture and enjoyed the benefits of public education — that is being targeted by the higher-education legislation.

Sarah has spent most of her life in the United States and, as the 2002 tuition law requires, attended high school in Utah for three years and graduated. She is among an estimated 85,000 undocumented immigrants living in Utah, according to Pew Hispanic Center estimates for 2003-04. She's also among an estimated 169 undocumented students who would have to pay out-of-state tuition if lawmakers repeal that law.

HB7 is one of three bills sponsored by Rep. Glenn Donnelson, R-North Ogden, currently before the state Legislature that are being pushed by groups opposed to illegal immigration. Donnelson also is sponsoring HB64, which would repeal driving-privilege cards that were created last session as a way for undocumented immigrants to drive without accessing citizenship rights with a driver's license. And he is sponsoring HB179, which requires employers to verify new hires' eligibility through the Department of Homeland Security.

Donnelson has said the bills are an effort to discourage illegal immigration. The tuition bill, he said, is meant to send a message to Washington lawmakers to "get off their whatever" and work on immigration reform.

"It's a burden on the state. What do we do?" Donnelson said. "It's illegal to employ them. So we educate them for what? It's a false dream."

The 2002 bill required three years' attendance in a Utah high school for eligibility for in-state tuition.

Michael Clara, spokesman for the Utah Hispanic/Latino Legislative Task Force, said it's unusual that Thursday's meeting wasn't opened to public comment. Normally, he said, "it seems like you get heard."

But for many, Thursday's meeting seemed like just another example of lawmakers ignoring a rapidly growing community of Latino immigrants.

"We got railroaded without any public comment," said Robert Gallegos, president of RAZ-PAC.

Last year, RAZ-PAC was among organizations that called hundreds of Latinos to the state Capitol in a failed effort to keep drivers' licenses for undocumented immigrants.

Another community activist, Tony Yapias, director of Proyecto Latino de Utah, said Latino immigrants just "don't have the political clout," at least not yet.

"There are Latinos throughout the U.S. who are U.S. citizens, who are culturally immersed, assimilated into the system," said Yapias, a naturalized citizen. "We feel we are just being picked on."

Denise Castaneda, a student at the U. and a high school recruiter, isn't affected by the tuition law, but says the vote "affects me, it's my community."

"They want us to work for them in low-wage jobs," she said. "But when there's an opportunity to have this education, where's the support?"

However, Alex Segura of the Utah Minuteman Project said he doesn't know if Thursday's vote indicates that activists against illegal immigration are gaining clout with lawmakers.

"At least more people are hearing the message," he said. "The fact of the matter is, we have been tirelessly providing education."

Segura advocates enforcing immigration laws and said the so-called "Hispanic lobby" is moving things in the wrong direction.

"I would say they definitely support a segregated ideology," he said. The tuition law "seems to benefit just one particular race. . . . It's always Hispanics."

Rep. James Ferrin, R-Orem, said he understands the students' reaction. He voted for the tuition benefit in 2002 and voted for its repeal Thursday.

"I can see in their faces they are very disappointed," Ferrin said. "It's a very tough situation and I feel very badly for those students."

Ferrin was among lawmakers who expressed frustration with federal inaction on immigration as they cast their votes.

"My vote is not cast, my opinion is not formed at all based on whether these people can vote for me," Ferrin said. "My vote four years ago . . . was based upon the belief that an educated population is better than an uneducated population. . . . We should be paying attention to them because they are people."

E-mail: dbulkeley@desnews.com