HARD SCHOOL KNOCKS FOR ILLEGAL IMMIGRANTS: ASSET bill signed into law permitting children of illegal immigrants to get in-state tuition rates

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AURORA | For almost four years, money and a social security number stood in the way of Jennifer Romero’s dream of going to college and becoming a psychologist.

Romero, who was brought to the United States when she was just over 1 year old, graduated from Aurora Central High School in 2009. That was the same year she was told she’d have to pay exorbitant out-of-state tuition costs if she wanted to go to college in Colorado because she wasn’t a U.S citizen.

She was devastated for herself and for all her friends who graduated from Colorado high schools that same year and couldn’t fulfill their career goals.

During the past four years, she teamed up with immigrant rights organizations to push for legislation that would make it easier for illegal-immigrant students who call Colorado their home to get college degrees.

Now, Romero’s wait is over.

On April 29, Gov. John Hickenlooper signed a bill into law that will allow Romero and other undocumented high school graduates living in Colorado to receive in-state tuition benefits for college.

“I put my dreams on hold, and now I don’t have to do that anymore,” said Romero, 21. “Now I can go to school and make my parents proud.”

The law, dubbed Advancing Students for a Stronger Economy Tomorrow, or ASSET, garnered bipartisan support at the Colorado Legislature this year after lawmakers, immigrants and activists spent more than a decade trying to push similar bills through the Capitol.

The law will allow undocumented students to receive in-state tuition benefits at Colorado colleges and universities as long as they have attended a Colorado high school for at least three years or graduated from high school or obtained a GED. To be eligible for in-state tuition, they have to be accepted to a college in Colorado and agree to file an application to legalize their immigration status.

For Aurora resident Fabian Dominguez who came to Colorado from Mexico when he was 5 years old, the law means that he’ll be able to go to Arapahoe Community College in Littleton full-time instead of part-time. He’s studying health and wellness and human performance at Arapahoe Community College and hopes to become a personal trainer. By paying an instate tuition rate, he expects to graduate in May 2014, earlier than anticipated.

“More than likely I’m going to end up paying what I pay now, but instead of taking four or five credits, I’m going to be able to take 12 or 15 credits,” said Dominguez, who is also a community leader with the Denver-based immigrants rights organization Together Colorado. He currently pays about $2,500 per semester, he said.

He said he was thrilled when the Colorado Legislature finally passed the ASSET bill in March.

“It was like a light went on inside the room; all of a sudden a world of opportunity opened up in a second,” he said.

Aurora Central High School graduate Cruz Torres, who immigrated from Mexico when he was 10 years old, said he and his brother can now dream bigger when applying to colleges and universities in the state.

“A lot of my friends were just waiting for something like this,” he said. “Now, they can work and study and do whatever they dream of.”

According to state budget analysts, the law will result in about 500 undocumented students going to college in the 2013-14 school year, which would earn colleges about $2 million in tuition revenue.

More than 300 supporters of the ASSET bill attended the bill signing ceremony at the Metropolitan State University of Denver on April 29, including Marilyn Dallet, a retired teacher who spent 25 years teaching elementary school students in the Sheridan School District. She said undocumented students who want to go to college should be afforded the same benefits as all other students.

“They are truly an asset to our state and our country, and we’re fools if we don’t help them become well-educated members of our society,” she said.

Many immigrants and lawmakers hope the ASSET bill will be the first step toward a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million immigrants who live in the U.S.

“This step is going to be the first step to national immigration reform,” said Hickenlooper.

Several Aurora lawmakers including Sen. Nancy Todd, D-Aurora, Rep. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora and Sen. Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora, and Rep. John Buckner, D-Aurora, signed on to co-sponsor the bill.

Reach reporter Sara Castellanos at 720-449-9036 or [email protected]