7:05am

Thu February 14, 2013
Politics

An 'Idea Whose Time Has Come,' Debate Still Follows Illegal Immigrant Tuition Bill

As the Republican Party licks its wounds after a tough election cycle, some Colorado lawmakers are hoping a bill to give illegal immigrants in-state college tuition will help bridge the gap with Latino voters.

Just last year Republicans defeated a similar measure when they controlled the statehouse.

Freshman Owen Hill is the first Republican state senator to vote in favor of the instate tuition measure. Hill represents part of Colorado Springs and has faced a backlash from some people in his district

Senator Owen Hill hails from a heavily conservative district in Colorado Springs. That hasn’t stopped the newly elected politician from being the first senate Republican to vote in favor of the instate tuition measure.

“We have to make sure as many people who want to come and work here can, as long as they follow our rules. Just like we say to companies that want to import things, Japanese cars, other goods from Mexico. We have a free market, let the best come and succeed in the free market,” said Hill.

Senate bill 33 [.pdf] would give in-state college tuition rates to children who are in the country illegally. Stipulations include the students must have attended a Colorado high school for three years, graduated and be accepted to college, and they also have to apply for citizenship. Democrats have brought forward a similar measure 6 times before, each time it has been defeated.

The bill’s main sponsor and says the politics now make it easier for Republicans to support it.

“People realize if you’re not going to be open to common sense solutions on this it’s much harder for you to appeal to a broad base of Coloradans who would support you in an election,” said Senator Michael Johnson, D-Denver. “And it doesn’t help anybody to say we’re going to really punish a 17-year-old valedictorian and prevent her from going to college and that will solve the immigration problem.”

For Hispanic voters in Colorado education has consistently ranked as a top issue, even above immigration reform.

"The Republican Party has always been about individual rights and empowering communities, empowering those communities outside of government. This is that type of bill."

"I don’t know why we’ve been stuck in this political quagmire,” said Bill Vidal, head of the Denver-based Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. He says GOP support for the tuition bill won’t go unnoticed by the Hispanic community.

“Obviously it’s not surprising to see some movement when you think about what happened with the presidential elections this past November. It is immaterial to me what motivates people to vote for something one way or the other. But it is always gratifying to see people to moving toward doing the right thing,” Vidal said.

Being more open is a direction some Republicans say the party needs to take.

“It’s not reinventing, recreating. It’s returning to roots,” said Republican attorney Mario Nicolais. “It is really looking at our principals. The Republican Party has always been about individual rights and empowering communities, empowering those communities outside of government. This is that type of bill.”

Senator Owen Hill isn’t the only Republican backer at the statehouse. Freshman senator Larry Crowder of Alamosa says voting yes is a no-brainer. Crowder comes from a largely Hispanic part of the state and says his vote has nothing to do with the national discussion.

“You have to realize I’m a fifth generation Coloradan,” said Crowder. “So I’ve lived around Hispanics my whole life. My ancestors have done the same thing. We should give them a helping hand.”

It may make sense for Crowder, but there is a divide in the party among those who say the bill clearly violates Republican fundamentals and federal immigration laws.

“Everyone in the world wants to come and work in the United States. I think it’s unfair to single out one group of people who are here illegally,” said Kent Lambert, R-Colorado Springs. “We need to respect those people that go through the process.”

A few other Republican lawmakers say they’re still on the fence about the measure. With Democrats in control of the state Legislature though, it’s expected to pass easily. Democrats say it’s an idea whose time has come, and they’re happy to have some Republicans on board whether it’s for political, policy or personal reasons.