Massachusetts Senate Democrats Push To Lower College Tuition For Undocumented Immigrants

By Sam Drysdale
State House News Service

Senate Democrats on Wednesday night rallied around plans to begin offering lower in-state college tuition rates to undocumented immigrants, trouncing a push by Republicans to knock the policy change out of the annual budget.

The change was one of the standout features of the $55.8 billion budget Democrats rolled out earlier this month. And after the longest debate on a single amendment this budget season, Democrats rejected a Sen. Ryan Fattman amendment after the Sutton Republican worried about the message behind the policy.

“When the headline for our Senate budget came out a few weeks ago, the headline read that in-state tuition was going to be offered to undocumented residents in Massachusetts. And that was the headline, amongst many of the good things that are in this budget that didn’t get the priority,” said Republican Sen. Ryan Fattman of Sutton, who filed the amendment to remove the policy that Senate Ways and Means baked into the Senate budget bill.

Fattman said his office had received calls from constituents who were “frustrated” by the news. One constituent said they and their whole family had gone to vocational schools, but their daughter recently received a letter saying she could not also go because there wasn’t a spot for her.

“‘And then I see this headline,’” Fattman said, recalling what his constituent told him, “‘that the state Senate is trying to help our people who aren’t citizens and I just find that to be problematic.’”

He added, “It’s not the money, it’s the message. It’s the message to a lot of people out there who are working hard every single day, trying to play by the rules, and they don’t feel like their government is always necessarily working for them.”

Under the policy change, undocumented immigrants could qualify for in-state tuition only if they attended high school here for at least three years and graduated, or completed a GED. They would need to provide a college or university with a valid Social Security number or taxpayer identification number, an affidavit indicating they applied for citizenship or legal permanent residence or plan to do so once eligible, and proof they registered for selective service if applicable.

Nine Democrats stood to make speeches on the Senate floor over the course of about two hours to defend the reform. The policy change has long been debated in the Massachusetts Legislature, and several senators noted that 23 other states already have similar laws on the books.

“The fight for in-state tuition has lasted for 20 years, and it finally has a real chance of happening. And 23 states have already, have similar in-state tuition laws for undocumented students, including New York, Rhode Island, California and, get this, Texas. Let me say that again — Texas,” said Democratic Sen. Liz Miranda of Boston.

Miranda, and every other Democrat who spoke about the reform, also said making the cost of attending state colleges and universities more affordable was “essential” to the state’s economic well being, at a time of cross-industry workforce shortages.

A recent MassINC study predicted that by 2030, Massachusetts will face a deficit of nearly 200,000 college educated adults in its workforce, Miranda said.

Massachusetts saw nearly 111,000 people leave the state between April 2020 and July 2022, exacerbating labor shortage challenges and workforce trends, according to a a new Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation report.

The report also says that tax filers between 26 and 35 years old dominated the outflow, shrinked a pool of workers the state relies on for growth.

“The data is clear that students who attend Massachusetts public colleges and universities stay in state. They come home to our communities after graduation. So why in the world? Why in the world would we want to continue to deprive the very people who will come home to our communities to start businesses, raise families, become educators, become lawyers, become doctors, therapists, coaches — Lord knows we need them all — help lead this state,” said Sen. Jo Comerford of Northampton, who chairs the Joint Committee on Higher Education.

Sen. Sal DiDomenico of Everett, a community with a large immigrant population, told the story of a recent valedictorian of Chelsea High School. He said, despite graduating top of her class, she could not afford to go to college because she was undocumented, and could not pay full-price.

“An incoming freshman going to UMass Amherst who has resided here for a little over 12 months will have to pay $33,000,” said Sen. Pavel Payano of Lawrence. “But an incoming freshman who has lived here for 18 years of their lives here in Massachusetts, who has cleaned our parks, been involved in our community, who only knows this country, this state, is burdened with the staggering cost of over $55,000. This stark disparity is not only unfair, but also hinders the full potential and contributions of these talented students.”

Sens. Marc Pacheco and John Keenan said they changed their opinions on the issue over their tenure as lawmakers, voting to support the reform on Wednesday.

They weren’t alone in their change of opinion. As members of the House in 2006, now-Sens. Barry Finegold of Andover, Anne Gobi of Spencer, Michael Rush of West Roxbury, Walter Timilty of Milton, and Michael Rodrigues — who now chairs the committee who included the policy in the budget this session — all voted against a similar reform.

Over a decade ago when Keenan started as a senator, he said that he felt immigration was a federal issue, and not under state government’s purview.

But as the federal government failed to properly address immigration reform, the Quincy Democrat said, he began to feel “rotten” when he would turn away immigration activists that came to his office to advocate for in-state tuition and opening driver’s license eligibility to all residents of the state without promising support.

“It’s not the fault of those that are here undocumented, and it’s certainly not the fault of their children. It’s the fault of our government. So while the federal government refuses to address the immigration issue, we can do something about it,” Keenan said on Wednesday, before casting his vote against Fattman’s amendment.

Republican Sen. Patrick O’Connor of Weymouth was the last senator to speak about the issue. He defended the amendment, urging senators to allow the topic to go through the legislative process, instead of tacking a major policy issue onto the budget as a vehicle for faster passage.

O’Connor said he would ultimately like to see in-state tuition extended to all residents regardless of immigration status as well. But he argued that lawmakers and the public should be given time to do research and conduct hearings, to ensure the best policy.

Of the 23 other states that grant in-state tuition to undocumented students, some require that the students go to community college first, others require that they file tax returns, and there are other nuances in the laws, O’Connor said.

“I believe that with the proper vetting of this bill, with the proper opportunity to have a public hearing to offer amendments — I mean to offer amendments — is that not something that’s fundamental about our transparent political process that we have? We’re not able to do that with this. To look at what the other states have done. To get this right. To find the best practices,” he said.

Sen. Brendan Crighton of Lynn responded that the issue has been vetted before, as it has been introduced in previous legislative sessions.

Republican losses over the years have left the party with just three members in the Senate this session, and Sen. Bruce Tarr of Gloucester joined Fattman and O’Connor in voting to knock the measure out of the budget.

With the amendment defeated, the budget that senators will likely vote to approve this week will include the reform. Next up, senators will meet with representatives for closed-door negotiations, where Senate leaders will fight to have the policy included in the final version of the budget.

The House did not include the policy in their fiscal 2024 spending plan, and House Speaker Ron Mariano, who voted against the change in 2006, isn’t showing his cards on the issue, though Gov. Maura Healey has struck a more receptive tone.

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