SALT LAKE CITY — High school student Daniel Reyna made an impassioned plea to lawmakers Friday against repealing in-state college tuition for illegal immigrants.
"I strive to be able to go to college but because of my status, my aspiration for this dream seems unreachable," said Reyna, whose undocumented parents brought him from Argentina as a child.
"If HB191 were to pass, my being able to go to college would be nearly impossible, and not because of my academic performance, but because of the high price of out-of-state tuition we would be forced to pay."
Reyna was among several dozen Latino students who packed the House Revenue and Taxation Committee hearing on Rep. Carl Wimmer's bill to repeal the tuition break for illegal immigrants. The Herriman Republican told the committee Utah taxpayers should not subsidize college tuition for students like Reyna.
"Can you justify in your own mind redistributing $5.5 million from the taxpayers, from citizens, from your constituents and give it to illegal immigrants to get discounted college tuition when you know the majority of them don't support it?" he said.
The committee voted 10-5 to advance HB191 to the House floor.
Rep Brian King, D-Salt Lake, voted no, saying the "us versus them" tenor of the bill is "incredibly divisive and destructive" to the community. Rep. Tim Cosgrove, D-Murray, said a repeal would "dishearten" students from pursuing their dreams.
Since 2002, students who complete three years of high school in Utah and graduate have been eligible for in-state tuition.
Currently, 643 non-citizen students attend Utah colleges and universities, generating $2.3 million in resident tuition. According to legislative fiscal analysts, that figure would be $5.5 million higher if they paid non-resident tuition.
Utah Eagle Forum president Gayle Ruzicka said if non-citizens get in-state tuition then everyone should get it, "not just this little group that has managed to live here illegally for three years."
University officials did not testify before the committee. But the Utah System of Higher Education contacted afterward said it has no stance on the bill.
"We support the law as it stands right now," said USHE spokeswoman Holly Braithwaite. "We don't advocate change in the current law."
Wimmer said the law was never supposed to take place until Congress approved the Dream Act, which it has yet to do.
"This bill was put into effect (in 2002) against the will of the Legislature," he said. And in so doing, Wimmer said, put the state at odds with federal law.
But Rep. Dave Clark, R-St. George, recalled the Legislature's intent differently. He said it was clear at that time the law was to go into effect immediately.
ACLU legislative and policy analyst Marina Lowe said the law is "indeed legally sound." For that reason, she said, the federal government has not challenged Utah in court.
Wimmer said it doesn't make sense to educate students who can't be legally employed after graduation.
"In order for them to work they have to commit identity theft," he said.
Paula Green Johnson, of the United Way of Utah, told the committee everyone benefits from education and that is one of the state's greatest assets.
But Payson resident Clark Turner said that doesn't make the tuition break right. "I don't think we can provide an economic benefit to those who are here against our laws in pursuit of higher good."
Reyna, a junior at the Academy for Math, Engineering and Science in the Granite School District, sees college as an chance to repay the community.
"Utah has given me and my family a lot. Utah is the place we call home," he said. College, Reyna said, "would not only benefit me as an individual, but it would also allow me and other students like me to give back to the place that has given us so much."
Contributing: Paul Koepp