TOPEKA — The House advanced a bill Monday repealing a state law that allows children of illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition to attend Kansas public universities, community colleges and trade schools.
Monday's 69-49 unrecorded vote came after a lengthy — and at times emotional — speech by Rep. Mario Goico, R-Wichita, who strongly opposes repealing the law.
He recounted his own personal story as a refugee who escaped communist Cuba on a tourist visa at age 15, after two schoolmates were shot for protesting the regime and one of his aunts was arrested.
Goico related how he bounced around foster homes and orphanages in Kansas, but eventually attended Wichita State University to study engineering. Goico said he had to pay out-of-state tuition, although he graduated from a Kansas high school.
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"When you find yourself in that situation, you feel like baggage," he said.
Current law allows children of illegal immigrants to qualify for in-state tuition if they have attended a Kansas high school for three years and earned a diploma or equivalent. They are ineligible for state or federal financial aid.
Goico said it took him 7 1/2 years to get through college. He had to take about 1 1/2 years off to work "the most awful jobs you can imagine" to earn tuition money.
After graduation, he said, he entered the Air Force, became a pilot and served for 32 years, including deployments in Desert Shield, Desert Storm, Kosovo and Bosnia.
"Just because of the grace of God I went back to school and changed my life," he said.
There are 413 undocumented students in state schools under the current law. Of those, 323 attend community college, 62 are in state universities and 28 are in technical schools.
Supporters of HB 2006 said that those students cost the state more than $1 million a year — a figure that represents the difference in what they pay as in-state students versus out-of state tuition.
Among those quoting that estimate was Rep. TerriLois Gregory, R-Baldwin City.
"We should stop punishing the citizens and stop rewarding the lawbreakers," she said.
Judiciary Committee Chairman Lance Kinzer, R-Olathe, a supporter of HB 2006, said he thinks the current law conflicts with federal immigration laws that prohibit providing educational benefits to undocumented students that are not available to all U.S. citizens.
However, he noted that courts have split on the question of whether in-state tuition meets the legal definition of a benefit and the latest decision, by the California Supreme Court, ruled it's not.
Rep. Caryn Tyson, R-Parker, said she thinks it's unfair that students in the country illegally can get in-state tuition while foreign students with valid visas have to pay the out-of-state rate.
She also said the message from the November election — which substantially increased Republican representation in the Legislature — was to crack down on illegal immigrants.
"Your constituents want it, that's the main reason," she said.
Goico, who noted that he is one of the most conservative Republicans in the Legislature, said there is really no incremental cost to the state.
"All costs are fixed," he said. "There are no additional costs for an extra chair."
Goico said the change in law would probably cost the universities revenue because most of the immigrant students would have to drop out if their tuition was raised to the out-of-state level.
"This (current) law hurts no one because it is not a giveaway," Goico said. "The students still have to pay tuition, at rates that keep rising every year, and they are not eligible for any federal or state aid."
If HB 2006 passes, "Kansas will not have any more money and these children's future will be harmed," he said.
Rep. Bob Brookens, R-Emporia, hailed Goico's speech, noting that Goico didn't become a naturalized citizen until age 23.
"What would this bill have done with him?" Brookens asked. "It would have kicked him out of school."