- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 15, 2015

BOSTON (AP) - Massachusetts lawmakers are reviving a debate about whether immigrants in the country illegally should be eligible for in-state college tuition rates, and backers of both sides gathered at the Statehouse on Wednesday to testify at a public hearing.

Existing rules say that immigrants who’ve entered the U.S. illegally but who have a federal work permit are eligible for in-state rates. The rates are often half the price of out-of-state tuition. But a Democrat-backed proposal aims to expand that to offer in-state rates to any student who attends a Massachusetts high school for at least three years, and who either graduates or earns an equivalent diploma.

Those students would also be eligible for state financial aid, which hasn’t been proposed in similar bills in the past.

In response, Republicans have countered with legislation that would limit in-state rates to U.S. citizens only.

“More than anything, I would love to go to college,” said Valeria Do Vale, a 17-year-old immigrant from Brazil who now attends a top public high school in Boston.

But the cost - especially higher out-of-state rates - are more than her family can afford, she said.

“I just don’t understand why, with all that I do, that I still would not be able to go to college and fulfill the dream that my mom intended for me,” Do Vale told the state’s joint higher-education committee.

Leaders of public universities and some elected officials also spoke in support of the proposal.

“We shouldn’t punish kids because their parents brought them over the border,” said Worcester Mayor Joseph Petty.

Opponents at the hearing said it would be wrong to reward those who enter the country illegally.

Republican Gov. Charlie Baker said his administration supported his predecessor’s move to offer in-state tuition to immigrants with federal work permits. But he sounded a skeptical note on proposals to expand that program.

“The rationale behind having taxpayers finance higher education for students within the commonwealth has been so they can stay here and work when they graduate,” Baker told reporters Wednesday. “Obviously people who can’t stay here and work after they graduate don’t meet that test.”

The governor added that he hoped the federal government would ultimately decide how to deal with immigration issues such as this on a national level.

Massachusetts has been debating the idea for more than a decade, but the farthest it has traveled was in 2004 when a proposal cleared the legislature but was vetoed by then-Gov. Mitt Romney.

President Barack Obama’s decision in 2012 to let young people living in the U.S. illegally stay and work was hailed as a landmark step toward immigration reform, but opportunities for those immigrants - including lower tuition rates - vary by state.

Arizona, Georgia and Indiana prohibited in-state tuition rates for students in the country illegally as of February, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Alabama and South Carolina forbid these students from enrolling at public colleges.

But at least 18 states allow in-state tuition rates for students in the U.S. illegally, according to the conference.

In Massachusetts, more public hearings are expected before fall, when the committee considering the proposals could take action.

___

Associated Press writer Bob Salsberg contributed to this report.

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