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They were glad to see that HB224 moved closer Friday to becoming a reality - after years of being halted early in the legislative process.
The House Education Committee voted 9-5 in favor of repealing the in-state college tuition law. The vote was split along party lines with the exception of Rep. Kory Holdaway, the only Republican who voted against the bill.
This is Rep. Glenn Donnelson's fourth consecutive year sponsoring the repeal bill. The North Ogden Republican told the committee the state needs to follow federal law that says undocumented immigrants should not get any postsecondary education benefit. Donnelson went on to say that the bill is not anti-Latino, saying he grew up in "inner-city Ogden" and has several Latino friends.
''They're hard workers, but the issue here is the law,'' Donnelson said. ''What we're doing here is just encouraging lawbreaking.''
Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. told The Salt Lake Tribune last week he would "very seriously consider vetoing" the repeal bill.
On Friday, a Huntsman spokeswoman tried to tone down that statement, saying, "The governor is going to wait until it's in its final form and sent to his desk before he makes a decision."
More than 120 people attended the 90-minute committee meeting, where about two dozen people equally representing both sides were given two minutes each to address the committee. A young woman and man stood outside the room carrying handmade signs that read, "Racists shouldn't be legislators."
Passions were high, but the meeting remained orderly.
Opponents of the law say it is a reward for people breaking the law. It provides an incentive for undocumented immigrants to move here. It's unfair for out-of-state students who are U.S. citizens and puts Utah at risk of being sued. And it costs the state too much money in subsidized tuition.
The law also provides false hopes for undocumented students because they can't change their U.S. immigration status unless they return to their home country, critics say. Eventually, some undocumented students could resort to using fake documents and getting employers in trouble.
"This is an unfair contradiction, and it needs to stop," said Michelle Seegmiller, who spoke on behalf of her son, who is a Salt Lake Community College student.
Supporters of the current law say undocumented students shouldn't be blamed for moving here with their parents. They also can't get federal financial aid and aren't eligible for most scholarships, so it would be almost impossible to pay an extra $5,000 in tuition per semester, supporters say.
They also say undocumented students and their families pay Utah taxes and contribute to the state and have done so for years. And there is the possibility that an undocumented student can get legal status while in college, they said.
Jose, an undocumented college student, said he is working on his immigration status and the in-state college tuition law is giving him a chance to succeed. He told the committee that the United States has been a "world of opportunity" since he moved here as a child, and he wants to stay here and better the community.
"I would hate to tell my little brother that he can't go to college like I did," Jose said, bursting into tears in front of the committee.
In the 2005-06 school year, 182 undocumented students at the state's nine public colleges and universities registered for class under the law. To be eligible, students must attend a Utah high school for at least three years and graduate from a state high school or receive a GED. The repeal bill would exempt the students registered before May 1.
Lawmakers gave different reasons for their votes on the bill.
Rep. Greg Hughes, R-Draper, said he voted for repeal because he is concerned undocumented students can't work legally and employers shouldn't be hiring them.
"I don't want people to confuse it with racism," he said.
Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Holladay, said she voted against repeal because she wonders about its repercussions. The retired teacher said the law gives undocumented students something to look forward to after high school. She wonders, if they don't go to college, what it will cost the state in social services.
Moss also said it seems no one appears concerned about undocumented immigrants working as cooks, maids, and construction and farm workers, but it is a problem when their children want to further their education.
"Don't end the dream for these young people," she said.
Next step: Bill goes to House floor for debate
* HOW THEY VOTED:
For (9): Republicas Reps. Greg Hughes, Patrick Painter, Sylvia Andersen, Craig Frank, Bradley Last, Rebecca Lockhart, Merlynn Newbold, Kenneth Sumsion, Stephen Urquhart
* Against (5): Democratic Reps. LaWanna Lou Shurtliff, Carol Spackman Moss, James Gowans, Mark Wheatley and Republican Kory Holdaway
* Absent (1): Republican Rep. Brad Dee
* Senator says Utah government hostile to religion, acts to rein it in. A10
* Is Utah's Legislature anti-democratic? See the Tribune political writers' blog at http://www.sltrib.com/utahpolitics.