Native American Woman Legislator Reminds Anti-Immigrant Politician He Was An “Illegal” Immigrant, Too
The Legislature's annual attempt to repeal a statute allowing in-state tuition for Kansas students without legal residency drew an emotional crowd to a House committee Wednesday.
Students who have lived in the United States most of their lives got choked up as they described the academic lifeline in-state tuition has provided to improve their lives. A counselor who works with such students in Wichita high schools shed tears as she showed legislators a scrapbook of success stories. Murmurs of unrest were heard in the gallery as one House member asked about the prevalence of illegal immigrants from gangs and drug cartels in American prisons.
But nothing drew a bigger reaction than when Rep. Ponka-We Victors, D-Wichita, wrapped up a series of questions to the bill's chief proponent, Secretary of State Kris Kobach.
“I think it’s funny Mr. Kobach, because when you mention illegal immigrant, I think of all of you,” said Victors, the Legislature's lone American Indian member.
The heavily pro-immigrant gallery burst into cheers and applause — a rare reaction in normally staid hearings.
"Please don't do that," said Rep. Arlen Siegfreid, R-Olathe, the chairman of the House Federal and State Affairs Committee.
Wednesday's hearing on House Bill 2192 would have repealed a nearly 10-year-old statute that allows students who graduate from Kansas high schools and have lived in Kansas for at least three years to pay in-state tuition at state universities and community colleges, regardless of residency status.
Kobach, a lightning-rod for controversy on immigration issues, told the committee federal law conflicts with that statute.
“U.S. citizens should always come first when it comes to handing out government subsidies,” Kobach said.
Kobach also pointed out that natives of foreign countries who seek student visas to attend Kansas universities must pay out-of-state tuition.
“I think that is an absurd reverse incentive," Kobach said. "If you follow the law, we’re charging you three times more.”
Proponents of the bill were outnumbered at Wednesday's hearing, but Kobach was joined by Leah Herron, of Shawnee.
"As a taxpaying citizen, I believe it’s unfair for me to shoulder this responsibility," Herron said.
Fred Logan of the Kansas Board of Regents, said the students involved pay the same tuition as their high school classmates. Logan said of the 630 immigrants currently accessing in-state tuition under the law, more than 500 attend community colleges. He called the 2004 law a "pro-growth" initiative and said it treats students without legal status fairly.
“They’re innocent," Logan said. "That’s important to remember. They came here because their parents brought them here.”
But Rep. Allan Rothlisberg, R-Grandview Plaza, could be seen shaking his head repeatedly as Logan said the word "innocent."
Rothlisberg later said he believes illegal immigrant parents are "using their children as pawns" and he finds it "patently offensive" when governments are asked to provide information in languages other than English. Rothlisberg asked Elias Garcia, the head of the Kansas League of United Latin American Citizens, why there are so many illegal immigrants affiliated with drug cartels and violent gangs, such as El Salvador-based MS-13, in U.S. prisons.
Garcia said Rothlisberg was overstating the problem.
“I used to work with the Department of Corrections," Garcia said. "I kind of know a lot about who’s in our jails and our prisons.”
Garcia said comprehensive immigration is on its way at the federal level and it would be a mistake to repeal the tuition law. He and Logan were joined in opposition by a string of students, including Georgina Hernandez, a Wichita State University graduate student who said her parents brought her to the U.S. from Mexico when she was 10.
Not eligible for federal student aid, Hernandez said she has worked nights as a hotel clerk and days as a housekeeper in order to afford in-state rates, while watching peers in southwest Kansas give up their college dreams for work in meat-packing plants.
“It’s like we’re already on the floor, and this bill would just kick us in the face,” Hernandez said.
Kim Voth, the Wichita schools counselor, said that before coming to testify she talked to one of her students who used the in-state tuition law to get an education degree and has since become a U.S. citizen and been teaching for five years.
“I asked her what I should say today," Voth said, beginning to cry. "She got very quiet, then said, 'Please tell them that my college degree changed my life.' ”
Several religious groups, including the Kansas Catholic Conference, also opposed the bill.
The committee took no action on it.