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Lower tuition for illegal immigrant students passes Colorado House

The cheers of immigrant students echoed through the Colorado Capitol on Friday after the House passed a bill allowing students who entered the U.S. illegally to pay lower college tuition, a measure that will soon become law.

Students hugged and wiped away tears outside the House chamber after the vote, sending the proposal to Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper, who is expected to sign it sometime this month.

The historic vote comes a decade after the bill was first introduced. Along the way, Colorado lawmakers grappled with immigration and passed strict enforcement laws, including one to deny non-emergency benefits to illegal immigrants.

Colorado Republicans have traditionally taken a tough stand on illegal immigration, but this year a few joined Democrats in the House and Senate who unanimously supported the bill. Three House Republicans voted yes, including Rep. Kevin Priola.

"Thank you, Rep. Priola!" the students yelled outside after the vote.

"For all intents and purposes Colorado is their home state, and there is no country to go back to. They're bright, energetic hardworking kids," Priola said.

The bill would allow students who graduate from Colorado high schools to attend college at the in-state rate, regardless of their immigration status. Currently, students in the country illegally must pay the nonresident tuition rate, which can be more than three times higher than the in-state rate.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 12 other states have passed laws to allow illegal immigrants to attend college at in-state rates, including conservative strongholds such as Texas and Utah.

Similar bills have been debated in Colorado for a decade, with both parties voting to defeat the proposals.

"This is history, you know?" said Victor Galvan, 22, a student at Metropolitan State University of Denver who was hugging other students outside the House chamber in celebration. "For 10 long years we fought."

Later, downstairs from the House, students gathered in a circle with Democratic Sen. Mike Johnston, who has been pushing for the bill for three years. Some students took turns trading stories about being unable to afford college. Galvan recalled how his mother told him it would be OK if he didn't go to college.

"Never again will another person have to say that to their son or daughter. I told her that I would graduate from high school and I would give her one day my college diploma," he said, choking up.

Jennifer Romero, 21, said she finished high school in 2009 but was short $200 to attend her first semester at a community college.

"And ever since then, I've been waiting, just waiting, just saving up," she said. "And now we know that that's not going to happen again, that I can go out there and give them money, pay in-state tuition and be able to graduate."

In previous years, Johnston had gathered the students in a circle to console them about the bill's failure.

"It's the best day I've ever spent in this building," he said.

Johnston said "there's a changing sentiment" about immigration in Colorado, and he credited the tuition bill.

"I think this debate has changed how the state sees this issue, and I think it will have reverberations beyond this issue," he said.

Most in the GOP still opposed the tuition measure. But during debates they took pains to argue they aren't anti-Latino, but critical of an overall immigration system that is flawed. They argued that a federal immigration overhaul needs to happen first, and said the bill would give students false hope because they would be saddled with college debt, but unable to get a job because of their immigration status.

"And I just don't see how that provides a brighter future," said Republican Rep. Polly Lawrence.

But Democrats disagreed. The immigrant students who get in-state tuition will have to sign an affidavit saying they're pursuing citizenship.

"Please be on the right side of history because this is not about false hope," Rep. Angela Williams, a Democrat from Denver, told her colleagues before the vote.