How Utah adopted ‘the most inclusive in-state tuition policy in the nation’ for refugees
Utah Rep. Jordan Teuscher discussed the legislative process of the landmark bill at the annual States Lay the Foundation Summit this week
Mahsa Qaderi, a young girl from Afghanistan whose dream of becoming a computer programmer was thwarted by high tuition costs. A young woman from Kenya putting every single penny toward her out-of-state tuition fees. And several Venezuelans hoping to continue their education in America.
With the help of Utah Rep. Jordan Teuscher, who sponsored HB102 — a revolutionary bill signed by Gov. Spencer Cox in March that expands in-state tuition access to refugees and asylum seekers — these people now have an opportunity to pursue their educational goals.
Teuscher discussed the bill’s legislative process on Tuesday afternoon at the fourth annual States Lay the Foundation Summit. Hosted online by the International Rescue Committee, founded by Albert Einstein in 1933 to “respond to the world’s biggest humanitarian crises,” and the Refugee Advocacy Lab, eight leading state legislators discussed recent policies they implemented to help with refugee integration and resettlement.
Speaking with Virginia state Sen. Ghazala Hashmi, Teuscher deemed HB102 “the most inclusive in-state tuition policy in the nation.” That’s because, in addition to refugees and asylum-seekers, other eligible parties benefiting from the bill include special immigrant visa recipients, individuals granted humanitarian parole and general newcomers.
And Teuscher said that stories like Qaderi’s, heard at committee meetings, helped spur unanimous support for HB102.
“I’m a hard-working student, and I want a better life for my family,” Qaderi said in her testimony to the Utah Senate Education Committee in February. “If I’m not approved a resident, I won’t be able to afford the expensive tuition, and my dreams will never come true. Please help me, and help other people like me, start life in the beautiful United States of America.”
HB102 allows refugees to immediately qualify for in-state tuition rates by requiring state schools to grant them residency status, which can otherwise take years to receive.
Teuscher said his interest in the issue was sparked by one of his constituents, Carlos Moreno, a Venezuelan who came to America on a student visa. A unique opportunity abroad ended with the Venezuelan government freezing Moreno’s bank accounts and charging him with treason after he spoke out against his home country.
Forced to apply for political asylum, Moreno fortunately didn’t have to wait long.
“I had to apply for political asylum here. I was lucky because my political asylum process took four months. That was very, very, very unusual because that process takes 10 years, seven years, eight years, 12 years. During that time, you are from nowhere. You are in a legal limbo. You are here, but at the same time, you are not here,” Moreno told the Deseret News in January, before the bill’s passage.
What’s more, Moreno was elected student body president at Salt Lake Community College, which earned him a scholarship. Still, he urged Teuscher to address the high tuition costs preventing fellow refugees from pursuing higher education.
It wasn’t Teuscher’s goal to make HB102 the most inclusive in-state tuition policy in the nation, but through a gradual process, which included substantial amounts of feedback and revisions, it became historic.
“When the bill was first drafted, we were looking at refugees and asylum-seekers. And as other groups took a look at the legislation, they said, ‘Well, what about this group that might be impacted?’ … The legislation just got better and better,” Teuscher said during the summit.
The International Rescue Committee, one of 10 nonprofit refugee resettlement agencies in the United States, was one of those groups that worked closely with Teuscher as the bill continued to progress.
“The consultative process was conversations with him where we said, ‘Hey … could this potentially include humanitarian parolees?’” Annie Healion, the International Rescue Committee Utah advocacy officer, said. “He did his political machinations, figured out stuff, that if it could work, and then added folks in.”
Teuscher easily won support, thanks to touching stories like Qaderi’s that brought the refugee plight to life in vivid detail.
“These stories touched everyone’s hearts. They brought people to tears, and they really made it real … I think the more that we can push these stories to help our colleagues to understand the real impact that the legislation is going to have, the better off that we are.”
Teuscher also attributed the lack of opposition to the history of Utah, citing the Latter-day Saint pioneers who fled to the Beehive State because of religious persecution.
“It’s in our DNA,” he said.
The bill unanimously passed both chambers of the Utah Legislature and took effect on May 3.
“When I heard the bill passed, I started crying,” Qaderi said.
Now, Qaderi has a scholarship from Salt Lake Community College, where she will study computer science this fall, and Teuscher has a message for other legislators throughout the country.
“I would just say that we can accomplish big things. Don’t be afraid of taking on a challenge like this. … It’s just if we don’t try, we can’t do (it), and in this case it worked really well.”