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N.H. bill would let some illegal immigrants get in-state tuition at public colleges, universities

Last modified: 8/20/2013 2:33:12 PM
Starting this year, students must swear under oath that they are legal residents of the United States to be eligible for in-state tuition at New Hampshire’s public colleges and universities.

But amid the national debate over immigration reform, state legislators are considering carving out an exception and allowing people who came here illegally, but otherwise qualify as New Hampshire residents, to get subsidized tuition so long as they apply for legal residency or say they will once the option is available.

“These students have lived in New Hampshire, have attended school in New Hampshire, have graduated from New Hampshire schools and want to further their educations at the University of New Hampshire or one of our community colleges,” said Rep. Mary Stuart Gile, a Concord Democrat and chairwoman of the House Education Committee. “And they feel, and I do too, they should be entitled to in-state tuition.”

Rep. Peter Schmidt, a Dover Democrat, filed a bill this year to grant in-state tuition to any “student who is without lawful immigration status,” but otherwise meets the criteria for in-state tuition, and who has applied “to legalize his or her immigration status, or will file such application as soon as he or she is eligible.”

The exact wording could change; lawmakers are revising the bill now, with their next work session scheduled for Sept. 3. It would apply to the University System of New Hampshire, which includes UNH, Keene State College, Plymouth State University and the 10 campuses of Granite State College.

Gile said the bill was retained this spring by the House Education Committee “pending the outcome of what is going on in Washington,” where immigration reform legislation is being debated by Congress. A comprehensive bill passed the U.S. Senate in June but faces significant opposition in the U.S. House.

Whatever happens at the federal level, the New Hampshire bill will go to the floor of the state House in January.

“It just seemed to me to be an issue that should be brought before the Legislature and the Education Committee, so it could be addressed and the most equitable solution could be found,” Schmidt said.

If it passes the Democratic-controlled House, the bill would then go to the Republican-controlled Senate.

And if it becomes law, it would reverse, at least in part, a policy enacted just last year.

In 2012, the then-GOP-dominated Legislature passed a bill that anyone admitted to a University System of New Hampshire school after Dec. 31, 2012, must execute an affidavit “attesting he or she is a legal resident of the United States” in order to be eligible for in-state tuition.

Opponents, including Gile, called the bill an attack on public higher education. But supporters said it served to clarify existing policy, since, they said, an illegal immigrant by definition couldn’t be a legal New Hampshire resident.

“It’s wrong to be forcing the taxpayers of New Hampshire to subsidize a post-secondary education for those who are breaking the law or are otherwise in our state because of criminal conduct. We shouldn’t be awarding bad behavior in this way and it’s especially unfair to those who follow the rules and come here legally,” said then-House Speaker Bill O’Brien, a Mont Vernon Republican, in a statement at the time.

Versions of the bill passed the House, 250-88, and the Senate, 19-5, on largely party-line votes. Gov. John Lynch, a Democrat, signed the final version into law.

In terms of price, the difference between in-state and out-of-state tuition isn’t small. At UNH’s main campus in Durham, in-state tuition is $13,670 this year compared with out-of-state tuition of $26,390. And while in-state tuition at USNH schools has been frozen for two years thanks to a big funding increase in the new state budget, out-of-state tuition will likely continue to rise.

Twelve states have laws allowing illegal immigrants to pay in-state prices under certain circumstances, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, including California, New York and Texas.

It’s not clear how many people would take advantage of such a policy here. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, in 2010 there were an estimated 11.2 million illegal immigrants in the United States, but only 15,000 were in New Hampshire.

Still, it would send a message, said Maggie Fogarty, the economic justice project coordinator for the American Friends Service Committee. The Quaker group is part of a coalition of groups that asked Schmidt to introduce the bill.

“It’s important to New Hampshire because we want to be a state that is fair. . . . We want to be a place that says, ‘You are New Hampshire people and you are eligible for in-state tuition,’ ” Fogarty said.

(Ben Leubsdorf can be reached at 369-3307 or bleubsdorf@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @BenLeubsdorf.)


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