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Bill aims to grant in-state tuition to undocumented students

Antonio Albizures and his family left Guatemala in 1992, illegally crossing the Mexican-American border by foot and ultimately settling in Rhode Island. He graduated a member of Blackstone Academy Charter School's class of 2009 and nursed the desire to pursue political science and sociology at the University of Rhode Island. But as an undocumented student, he would have been charged $25,720 in annual tuition — roughly three times the rate for state residents.

"It was basically impossible for me to go there," said Albizures, though he said he could afford in-state tuition. "I didn't even apply… And this is the state I call home."

Albizures is a member of the Brown Immigrants' Rights Coalition. Along with hundreds of other undocumented students in Rhode Island, he is keenly monitoring the progress of a bill introduced this month that aims to grant in-state tuition regardless of immigration status.

If the Student Equal Economic Opportunity Act passes, undocumented immigrants who attended a Rhode Island high school for at least three years and can prove they are in the process of changing or planning to change their immigration status will be eligible for in-state tuition.

"Many of them are brilliant, but when they don't see an opportunity, they get discouraged," said State Rep. Grace Diaz, D-Providence, who introduced the bill with State Sen. Juan Pichardo, D-Providence. "Instead of sitting down and waiting for immigration reform, we're moving ahead," she added. "Education is always something good."

According to Rhode Island Kids Count, a children's advocacy group, 130 undocumented students stand to benefit annually if the bill is passed.

Taxpayers would not shoulder any financial burden, as undocumented students would pay their own tuition and remain ineligible for federal aid, Diaz said. The state would actually benefit financially, she added, as college graduates tend to contribute higher taxes while needing fewer social services.

But critics charge such legislature could attract more undocumented immigrants, weaken state revenue and unjustly favor foreigners.

"It's really sending a message to the illegal community that Rhode Island is the state to be in," said State Rep. Peter Palumbo, D-Cranston, who opposes the bill. "It shows we're getting very soft on enforcement of illegal aliens."

Palumbo was adamant that the bill would not succeed, while Diaz and Pichardo said they were optimistic it would.

"It's definitely a bill that deserves to pass. I'm hoping there will be traction," said Alexandra Filindra, a postdoctoral research associate in public policy who is an adviser to the Brown Immigrants' Rights Coalition.

"It makes good economic, political and social sense for states to support the education of undocumented students," she added.

Stalled impetus for national immigration reform has triggered more state-level legislation. Ten states currently have legislation granting in-state tuition rates to undocumented students.

The federal Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, which would have granted a path to citizenship for undocumented students who came to the United States before the age of 16, was defeated in December. Experts say larger immigration reform remains unlikely.

"The DREAM Act was the only hope for these students," said Pichardo, who added that he has introduced a bill to grant in-state tuition to undocumented students for the past nine years.

Both he and Diaz were born in the Dominican Republic and have advocated for immigrant rights. "We must not let up on our struggle," Pichardo said.   

Advocates are optimistic that Gov. Lincoln Chafee '75 P'14 will be more supportive than former Gov. Donald Carcieri '65, whose 2008 executive order to combat illegal immigration was heavily criticized by immigrant rights groups. Chafee, who has stated that he is in favor of the DREAM Act, repealed the executive order last month.

Chafee approves of the "underlying concepts" of the Student Equal Economic Opportunity Act legislation, said Michael Trainor, director of communications for the governor. But Chafee wants to review the bill's specifics before making a statement, he said.

A public hearing to discuss the bill should occur within six to eight weeks, according to Diaz.

In the meantime, undocumented Albizures divides his time between working as a soccer coach, mentoring urban youth and advocating for undocumented students.

"I'm very hopeful," he said. "I'm going to keep fighting to get my education."


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