Mike Terry, Deseret Morning News
Denise Castaneda listens as Rep. Glenn Donnelson backs repeal of in-state tuition for the children of undocumented immigrants.

For Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, it was deja vu all over again.

"Here we go again," Moss, D-Holladay, said Tuesday before the House Education Committee voted 8-5 in favor of a measure that would repeal a 2002 law allowing undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition at Utah's public colleges and universities if they attend a Utah high school for three years and graduate.

"We have to be forward thinking and believe the laws will be changed to allow them to continue," Moss said. "I find it mean-spirited, wrong-headed and punitive to try and repeal this law."

Before the 30-minute discussion on HB241, Committee Chairman Greg Hughes, R-Draper, pointed out to the near-capacity audience that the committee make-up hadn't changed since the committee heard testimony on the repeal in the last legislative session. The votes didn't either, with one exception. Rep. Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, who supported it last year was absent.

HB241 would allow students already enrolled to continue paying the in-state rate but would deny the tuition wavier for students who enroll after May 1. The bill's sponsor, Rep. Glenn Donnelson, R-North Ogden, said federal law leaves the students with few opportunities once they graduate because there is little hope of legalizing their status.

"Everybody should be educated," he said. "But when we educate and can't produce a job are we selling a false dream?"

Those opposed to the repeal are now focusing on persuading the full House to vote against it. Last year the repeal failed in a tied vote, with a key supporter absent.

"These students work so hard, they want to go to college," said Denise Castaneda, a University of Utah student and member of the Utahns for the American Dream Coalition, which opposes the bill. "It's very heartbreaking. They're not going to leave. This is their home."

There are currently 280 undocumented students enrolled across the state paying in-state tuition because of the waiver, according to the Utah System of Higher Education. The bill's fiscal note estimates the state would lose an estimated $350,000 in future tuition in fiscal year 2009 and $500,000 in 2010.

Donnelson said the state is violating federal law by giving students the in-state rate and suggested those students would be better off returning to their home countries and applying for student visas.

If the students remain in the United States illegally for a year after turning 18, they'll face a 10-year bar on entering the country legally, unless they can qualify for a waiver. That waiver requires showing a person's absence would cause "extreme hardship" for a parent or spouse who is a U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident, said Maria Elena Garcia-Upson, spokeswoman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

On the other hand, if a student leaves the country to try to obtain a student visa, they'd have to show a financial ability to pay and that they don't intend to immigrate because it's a temporary visa.

"If they intend to become an immigrant, they cannot use that non-immigrant visa to come to the United States," Garcia-Upson said. "That would be circumventing the law."

Sen. Bill Hickman, R-St. George, is drafting a comprehensive bill that would also include the repeal, though he said his would be delayed until 2010 to give current high school students a chance to receive the tuition wavier.

Like Donnelson, who pointed out the federal Dream Act never materialized as a way for undocumented immigrants to earn legal status through higher education, Hickman doubted the federal government would act anytime soon to change the law.

"I think the DREAM Act is a dream, closely associated with a fantasy, closely associate with the federal Congress," Hickman said.

Tuesday's vote came after Hughes said he'd support the bill after he admonished the federal government for its "convoluted policy" on immigration, saying "I don't find a comfortable vote on either side of this issue."

Because of time constraints, public comments were limited to one minute, during the 30-minute discussion on the bill. Eli Cawley, chair of the Utah Minuteman Project, said "this bill does not prevent illegal aliens from getting an education. They just have to pay the same amount other aliens pay."

But Betty Watkin, a legal parent parent with two undocumented children, made a plea to the committee, saying "we couldn't afford to pay that (higher) amount."

E-mail: dbulkeley@desnews.com