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New Law Eases Tuition Rules for Undocumented

DANBURY — When she was 15, Anna said goodbye to her extended family to chase her dream of a better life outside of Brazil, where she believed her opportunities for education and employment were limited.

Anna went to live with her mother, who had moved to Danbury a few years earlier. Her father stayed in Brazil so he could work and provide for his family.

When she graduated from high school last year, Anna couldn’t afford a state university where, like other undocumented immigrants, she would have been required to pay out-of-state tuition.

“I can't count how many times I cried because of that,” she said.

Anna — not her real name — instead enrolled at a community college. But thanks to passage this month of a new state law easing residency rules for immigrants like herself, she plans eventually to enroll at Southern Connecticut State University, where in-state tuition of $4,800 is less than half that charged to out-of-state students.

Anna, who hopes to become a recreational therapist, said it’s simply “logical” to let immigrants like herself pay the lower rate.

“The fact that I am from another country does not change the fact that I want to help this country grow in a positive way,” she said.

Brazilian-born Camila Bortolleto, who helped found Connecticut Students for a Dream with her twin sister, Carolina, led the group in lobbying for passage in 2011 of the state's first law allowing undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition. But that law limited the tuition break to students who had spent a full four years in a Connecticut high school.

The new law, signed last week by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, allows undocumented immigrants to pay the lower rates if they attend a state high school for two years, earn a diploma and sign an affidavit saying they are pursuing a path to citizenship.

The governor and other supporters argued that the revised law will benefit the state’s economy by expanding its educated work force.

“Expanding education opportunities and delivering more access to a degree will ultimately support our overall economy, and again show employers that Connecticut has some of the best-trained, best-educated workers in the nation,” Malloy said.

Bortolleto, who grew up in Danbury, is an undocumented immigrant who was granted temporary residency under the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. Now 27, she lives in Washington, D.C., working at United We Dream, an immigrant youth-led organization.

“Nowadays, if you want to get a good job, you need to go to college and get a degree,” she said. “These are students who have lived here most of their high school careers and were being denied something they should get.”

But the law’s critics, including State Sen. Michael McLachlan, R-Danbury, counter that a state with so many budget challenges can’t afford to subsidize the cost of college for undocumented immigrants.

“The reality is that we have too many struggling to afford college now, and we have no business offering benefits to someone who isn’t here legally,” said McLachlan, who voted against both the 2011 bill and the 2015 revision.

Anna struggled at first after her arrival in America, especially when trying to learn English. She stayed after school and spent many lunch hours getting extra help. She eventually joined Connecticut Students for a Dream to help make it easier for immigrants to one day become productive citizens.

“Having the opportunity to study in the United States and getting involved with the community has been an amazing experience for me, but as I was about to graduate high school I came to realize that I had more obstacles ahead of me,” she said.

Since she had gone to a Connecticut high school only three years, she was ineligible for in-state tuition under the 2011 law. She decided to go to community college because it was cheaper than the state’s four-year schools and all that her father, who was paying, could afford.

It is not clear yet how many students will apply to state schools that previously could not have managed the out-of-state tuition costs. But at schools like Western Connecticut State University, officials are confident they can handle the influx.

“We don’t know how many more might apply under the new law but we expect to be able to accommodate them,” said university spokesman Paul Steinmetz, adding that the school does not track how many of its present students are undocumented. “We don’t have a hard limit on the number of students we can serve.”

In-state tuition at WCSU is $2,484 per semester, far less than the out-of-state rate of $8,039 per semester.

“Access to higher education and a college degree is beneficial, not just to individual students but also to the economy of the region, state and nation, and WCSU puts its resources toward educating its students to succeed in the workplace and as participants in society,” Steinmetz said.

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