Fight over tuition for immigrants derails bill

March 1, 2012
Indiana senators fearing a backlash from conservatives scuttled an expansive education proposal this week after it was amended to grant in-state tuition to illegal immigrants already enrolled in state schools.

Lawmakers banned illegal immigrants from qualifying for in-state tuition last year as part of a tougher immigration law. But Republican Sen. Jean Leising of Oldenburg amended a massive education bill this year to grandfather in those who enrolled in universities before July 2011.

"If they're going to be living here anyway, why not let them be productive members of Indiana society?" Leising asked. The measure would have kept roughly 200 students at state universities, including its Ivy Tech college network, from paying the more expensive out-of-state tuition rate.

The Senate was poised to approve the exemption as part of an education package that also called for expanding criminal background checks, mandating cursive writing instruction and dealing with gang activity in schools. But a last-minute lobbying blitz from conservative activists this week prompted the education measure's author, Republican Sen. Carlin Yoder of Middlebury, to pull the bill Wednesday.

Leising called it a matter of fairness and had strong backing from other members of the Senate education committee who voted 8-2 last week to add the clause to the education package. But that support shriveled late Tuesday and early Wednesday morning as members of state and national groups pressed lawmakers to oppose the entire bill.

"We just didn't feel it was the right way to do that, it was snuck in the back door," said Bob Schrameyer, executive director of Citizens for Immigration Law Enforcement in Goshen. He said he learned about the grandfather clause Tuesday night and coordinated a lobbying blitz of state senators with a handful of other groups.

The national Americans for Legal Immigration claimed victory on its website Wednesday after pressing senators to oppose the measure.

"Thanks to your calls HB 1326 in Indiana has been held by the Senate instead of being voted on or passed today," wrote ALIPAC President William Gheen.

A spokesman for Indiana School Superintendent Tony Bennett said he will try to find another vehicle for some measures in the education package, including the removal of some outdated and duplicative education laws.

Lawmakers, including senators who voted for exemption in committee last week, probably realized they would face more trouble from voters following the lobbying blitz, said Sen. Mike Delph, Republican of Carmel, who co-authored the in-state tuition ban.

"Any type of amnesty at all would not be well received by the public, he said.

Angela Smith Jones, a lobbyist for the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce, said she found broad support for the exemption when she testified before the education committee and was surprised when lawmakers backpedalled on the issue.

"Maybe it was that it is too touchy of a subject," she said. The chamber, along with Indiana University, supported the exemption calling it a matter of fairness for students already enrolled in state schools.


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