DENVER (AP) – Colorado Republicans appear to be changing their strategy on immigration, with several breaking ranks Friday and joining Democrats in favor of in-state tuition for illegal immigrants.

The bill passed on an unrecorded voice vote that included three Republicans, thought to be the first in the Colorado Senate ever to vote for such a proposal. In-state tuition for illegal immigrants has been considered for more than a decade in Colorado, but the measures were defeated each time by lawmakers from both parties.

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Over the years, as Colorado’s Latino population exploded, Democrats came to unify behind the tuition measure. Friday’s Senate vote showed at least some Republicans are changing their minds, too.

“I want the GOP to become the Grand Opportunity Party,” said Republican Sen. Greg Brophy of Wray, who has voted against in-state tuition proposals before.

Brophy said his mind was changed by ambitious young Latinos in his rural eastern Colorado hometown.

“They can’t leave here to go home, because they are home,” Brophy said.

Brophy was joined by two freshmen Republicans, Sens. Larry Crowder of Alamosa and Owen Hill of Colorado Springs.

Most in the GOP still opposed the tuition measure. But they took pains to argue they aren’t anti-Latino, but critical of an overall immigration system that is flawed.

After the Democratic sponsor of the tuition told a story about a young high school graduate forced home to Mexico’s dangerous Ciudad Juarez, the Senate’s lead Republican stood to make clear that the Republican Party doesn’t oppose immigration or young people seeking an education.

“We are a very generous people,” insisted Sen. Bill Cadman, R-Colorado Springs.

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Other Republicans tried and failed to amend the bill to get rid of out-of-state tuition entirely, saying people from neighboring Kansas or Wyoming should have lower rates, too. Some argued that the tuition bill is a Democratic attempt to gloss over the deep immigration problems this nation faces.

“Our bureaucracies are broken, and by passing bills like this, we are taking pressure off Congress to act,” said Sen. Scott Renfroe, R-Greeley.

However, the debate highlights came when Brophy and the freshmen Republicans explained why they favored the tuition bill. Crowder talked of growing up in southern Colorado surrounded by Latino immigrants, both illegal and legal.

“Until the federal government steps up to the plate and fixes this problem, we’ve got to do something,” argued Crowder, who went on to decry anti-immigrant sentiment.

“I guess some people just want them to graduate and flip burgers … (but) it’s time to realize we are a melting pot,” Crowder said.

Hill talked about visiting the Statue of Liberty as a child.

“It is not that I love law less, but I love liberty more,” Hill said.

After a formal vote next week, the measure heads to the House, which has defeated tuition proposals in the past. This year, the House is in Democratic hands, and the bill is expected to pass. Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper has said he’ll sign the bill into law.

By KRISTEN WYATT, Associated Press

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