DENVER (AP) – Illegal immigrant children seeking a more affordable path to college will soon get an answer from Colorado lawmakers on an issue that has divided them for years: Should the students pay roughly the same tuition as legal state residents?

The debate centers on what to do about immigrants like Claudia Trejo, a 17-year-old Denver high school student who has been in the state education system since she was 11.

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“I would say I consider Colorado my home,” said Trejo, who came to Denver illegally with her family from the Mexican state of Chihuahua.

The challenge for students such as Trejo, who wants to be a teacher, is out-of-state tuition can be up to five times more expensive than in-state rates. Trejo said her family can’t afford the difference.

Opponents of the bill before the Legislature argue that it rewards behavior that should be punished, and illegal immigrant students will find it hard to get a job because of their status, even if they get a college education.

The Democratic-led Senate passed a bill this month that provides discounted tuition for illegal immigrant students who graduate from a Colorado high school after at least three years of attendance. The proposal, which had no support from Senate Republicans, is pending before the GOP-controlled House Education Committee.

Advocates of the measure were encouraged by comments from the panel’s chairman, Rep. Tom Massey, R-Poncha Springs. While he stopped short of promising to vote yes for the bill, he said he’s sympathetic to the issue.

“I’m going to listen to both sides, but I’m very supportive of the concept, and it’s time we actually address this segment of the population,” Massey said.

Massey’s committee is set to hear the bill on April 23.

Last year, Massey was among Republican lawmakers on the same committee who rejected a similar bill after an emotional hearing attended by immigrant high school students wearing T-shirts reading, “Future Lawyer” and “Future Social Worker.”

This is the sixth time Colorado lawmakers have debated the issue.

Thirteen states – including Texas, California, Illinois and Connecticut – have passed legislation granting in-state tuition for immigrant students, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Under this year’s bill, Colorado students would not get in-state tuition, which includes a state subsidy. Under the proposed discounted tuition category, an illegal immigrant student attending the University of Colorado at Boulder would pay about $9,500 annually, compared with an estimated $7,700 for Colorado residents and about $28,850 for non-Colorado residents.

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The proposal allows colleges and universities to decide not to participate. But the University of Colorado, Colorado State University and the state system of community colleges support the tuition idea.

Even if it passes Massey’s committee, the bill must be heard by another committee where it could be voted down by majority Republicans who widely oppose the proposal.

Rep. Chris Holbert, R-Parker, a member of the Education Committee, said his constituents are against the idea. His main concern is the students’ legal status.

“If we have a student who’s attended high school, and they’re not a citizen, that person doesn’t have a Social Security number,” Holbert said. “And graduating them from an in-state institution at any level of tuition puts them back in society without a Social Security number. And I think that that’s an issue that we need to address clearly before we start talking about what tuition we charge them.”

The bill includes a requirement that students who take advantage of the discounted tuition rate sign an affidavit affirming they are seeking, or will seek, legal status.

“I certainly like that,” Holbert said. But he added, “I don’t know what the repercussions are if that process is not completed.”

Supporters are moving forward with the proposal despite past setbacks.

“Eventually, this bill is going to pass. I believe that very strongly,” said Rep. Crisanta Duran, D-Denver, who is sponsoring the bill in the House. “Because you can’t tell all of these kids who are in this country due to no fault of their own that they should not have access to the American Dream.”

Trejo, a senior at Bruce Randolph School, knows what she’ll do if the bill doesn’t pass.

“I will spend my summer registering people to vote and making sure they vote Nov. 6,” she said. “Because I think if we can (get) enough people to vote, we can create a change in our government.”

LINK: Senate Bill 15

– By Ivan Moreno, AP Writer

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