AUSTIN, Texas (AP) – The Republican-controlled Legislature began a push Monday to repeal Texas' 14-year-old law that gives the children of some people living in the United States illegally in-state tuition at public universities. Conservatives vowed to move quickly, while Democrats and Hispanic groups promised a long, bitter fight.
More than 100 people, many college students who wore ceremonial graduation caps, waited hours to defend the so-called "Texas Dream Act" of 2001 before a Senate subcommittee on border security. Their voices are unlikely to help, as the repeal is expected to eventually advance to a full committee.
Tea party-backed Sen. Donna Campbell is sponsoring one of the major bills seeking a repeal, arguing the law acts as a magnet for encouraging families from Mexico and Central America to cross into Texas illegally — even though state higher education officials say there's no evidence that actually occurs.
"It's just bad policy that awards illegal immigration in perpetuity," said Campbell, of New Braunfels, who added that offering in-state tuition and other grants has cost Texas $31 million.
The original law was approved nearly unanimously, designed to make attending college easier for thousands of Texas high school students who were children when they slipped across the Texas-Mexico border with their families. It was signed by Republican then-Gov. Rick Perry, whose support remained so strong that he suggested while running for president in 2012 that conservatives who oppose such measures don't have hearts. At least 15 other states later enacted similar laws.
Many of Texas' top Republicans have since embraced hard-line immigration policies. Perry's successor, Gov. Greg Abbott, has called the Dream Act flawed and pledged to sign a repeal should it reach his desk.
Supporters of the law counter that it fosters productive, tax-paying state residents who'll help grow the state's economy.
"These kids are not a threat to us, they are our future," El Paso Democratic Sen. Jose Rodriguez said.
He said he was offended by Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick referring the bill to a border security panel, where it may face an easier road to passage than if had gone to committees on higher education or immigration policy. Patrick has called for securing the Texas-Mexico border at all costs.
Campbell's bill would take effect in the 2016-2017 school year.
When supporters raised humanitarian objections, Campbell replied: "If we're looking at just compassion, what about the children in other states of the United States that would love to come to Texas, ours being the best state in the United States, and go to college here, but are charged out-of-state tuition?"
The law only applies to students who have attended Texas schools for three years and graduate from a state high school — which is about 1 percent of college students, according to Sen. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston.
"We should never be a state that punishes children for the actions of their parents," she said.
Roman Catholic advocacy groups have joined the Texas Association of Business in defending the law, saying the state already has an undereducated workforce and needs more, not fewer, college graduates.
Activist Loren Campos said Monday he crossed the border at age 11 and used the Dream Act to graduate from the University of Texas, before earning a master's in engineering at the University of Houston. Now, he's part of a major renovation project at the Houston airport.
"This law opened the doors to what I thought was an impossible dream," the 26-year-old said. "We have not received a free ticket into college. This is an earned opportunity."