Patrick eyes tuition breaks for illegal immigrants

Friday, January 11
BOSTON — Gov. Deval L. Patrick said yesterday he's looking into whether he can skirt the Legislature by unilaterally allowing illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition at state colleges.

Patrick's revelation touched off strong reaction on Beacon Hill, where House lawmakers two years ago defied Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi and defeated a bill that would let those students pay the same rate as their high school classmates.

"We have had some legal research done to see whether it's possible to address that question without legislation," the Democratic governor told an audience of education and business leaders. "The answer to that is by no means clear."

Sen. Benjamin B. Downing, D-Pittsfield, was disappointed that Patrick was looking to circumvent the Legislature.

"I know the governor has been somewhat frustrated by the pace of things in the Legislature, but that doesn't mean you bow out of the process," he said. "I think whether you agree with the governor on the merits of the policy, it's best to go through committee process."

Also yesterday, Patrick unveiled details of his bill to create a cabinet-level education secretary who would oversee what he expects to be widespread reform. But he warned those reforms — including lengthening the school day and providing two years of free community college education — "will take us a decade to implement."

Patrick wants Massachusetts to join 10 states — California, Illinois, Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah and Washington — that offer some illegal immigrant students in-state tuition rates.

"We don't tell immigrant children, I think the term is undocumented immigrant children, that they can't go to public colleges and universities," Patrick said. "We say they can come, we just say they have to pay a different rate than the kid who sat across the aisle from them at the local high school. That to me doesn't seem right. But I don't have the answer yet on how to fix this. I want to fix this."

Bunker Hill Community College, for example, charges out-of-state students $318 per credit, compared with $112 per credit for legal Massachusetts residents.

Opposition to the tuition break is rooted in the larger ideological issue of how to address illegal immigration. Opponents say the state shouldn't be making it easier for undocumented students, who could take higher paying jobs from legal residents.

"I'm amazed that he wants to be the sole person responsible for implementation of the wrong policy for Massachusetts," said House Minority Leader Bradley Jones, R-North Reading. "The public will be rightly incensed."

Jones said he hasn't researched whether the governor can grant the tuition breaks.

"We provide the free public education K-through-12 for these students," he said. "We've already done quite a bit for these students. By doing this, we would add incentives for people to come here. Illegal immigrants do pretty well finding out where the best places for them to go are."

One estimate says it would cost Massachusetts about $15 million to provide the tuition cut. But the governor's office highlighted a Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation report from 2006 that said it would generate $2.5 million in revenue because up to 600 new students might enroll.

In January 2006, the House voted 57-96 to defeat a bill to allow the tuition breaks, despite DiMasi's support of the measure.

DiMasi spokesman Dave Guarino said the speaker was awaiting the results of Patrick's review, and wouldn't comment further. Meanwhile, Patrick said an education secretary with broad authority over various policy-making boards would help him carry out reforms in coming years. The bill was filed under "Article 87" of the constitution, meaning it is unamendable. It becomes law unless lawmakers reject it within 60 days.

The bill would expand the number of seats on the panels and remove some members, allowing Patrick to gain greater control of the boards by adding supporters to advance his agenda.

In a news release, DiMasi backed the plan, saying it was a cooperative effort with legislative leaders.

Paul Reville, appointed by Patrick in August as chairman of the Board of Education, endorsed the plan.

Eagle Boston Bureau reporter Hillary Chabot contributed to this story.

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