Western GOP Leaders Reverse Course, Support Lower Tuition for Immigrant Students

As yet another sign showing the Republican Party is softening its previous hard-line stance on immigration, two states that previously opposed tuition for undocumented immigrants are now poised to make a reversal — with the help of GOP lawmakers.

So-called tuition equity bills have cleared legislative hurdles in Oregon and Colorado and appear to be on track to become law later this year. They would join 13 other states that offer undocumented high school graduates in-state college tuition rates.

For Karla Castañeda, a high school junior in Portland, Ore. who was brought to the U.S. illegally by her parents when she was four years old, it would mean a solid shot at a college degree.

“It will allow me to apply for Oregon State University, now that I can even think about going,” Castañeda said.

The benefit to undocumented immigrants is substantial. The difference between in-state tuition and out-of-state tuition in Oregon is $21,000 per year. Five Republicans state representatives voted for the measure, including Mark Johnson.

More On This...

“It’s been too easy to just cast Republicans aside and say ‘they don’t care about this.’ Well, I think we’re showing that we do share similarities with the Hispanic community and our values are very closely aligned,” Johnson said.

Critics call it pandering for votes. Many political experts have speculated Mitt Romney lost the 2012 presidential election partly because he received very little support from the Hispanic community. Romney received 27 percent of the Hispanic vote — compared to President Obama’s 72 percent. Various prominent GOP strategists, including former national party chairman Haley Barbour, have said Republicans must adapt to the country’s changing demographics.

Following the election, Florida Senator Marco Rubio introduced an immigration plan that includes a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million people who are in the country illegally. The plan was praised by leading Latino advocacy groups, such as the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

But even with increased GOP support, not everyone is on board. Out-of-state students like Gabby Morrongiello subsidize Oregon students. Even after receiving a merit scholarship, Morrongiello, who graduated from high school in California, pays $22,000 a year to attend Oregon State University.

“It’s going to create a huge financial burden, not just on Oregon taxpayers, but also on out-of-state students like myself,” said Morrongiello. “And frankly, that’s not really equity.”

Jim Ludwick, who heads Oregonians for Immigration Reform, which opposes illegal immigration, agreed. He fought the bill unsuccessfully in the statehouse, arguing it would provide another incentive for people to come to the U.S. illegally.

“We should continue the tradition of the United States, that everybody is supposed to abide by our laws,” said Ludwick.

Senate Bill 33 in Colorado is nearly identical to the Oregon bill. It passed the state senate with the help of three Republicans who had opposed the measure in past sessions. Colorado is now on the verge of reversing current law, which bars undocumented immigrants from obtaining in-state tuition

Republican Sen. Greg Brophy supported the ban, but has now changed his position.

“We might as well recognize that they’re not going to go anywhere else,” said Brophy. “Give them an opportunity to become fully educated American citizens, and maybe become high-paid taxpayers.”

Brophy’s not sure if the turnaround will help change any perception that the Republican Party is too harsh on illegal immigrants, but he said it might open some in his caucus to challenges from within party’s extreme right.