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Young immigrants lobby for state college tuition aid

Gabriel Bruno Parreira (center), who is an undocumented immigrant from Brazil and attends Somerville High, listened to testimony during the Joint Committee of Higher Education hearing on Education Equity Act at the State House.
Gabriel Bruno Parreira (center), who is an undocumented immigrant from Brazil and attends Somerville High, listened to testimony during the Joint Committee of Higher Education hearing on Education Equity Act at the State House.Craig F. Walker/Globe staff/Globe Staff

Valeria Do Vale of Roxbury said she thought coming to the United States would solve her problems. After escaping a violent home life in Brazil nearly 10 years ago, the 17-year-old learned English, supported her family, and earned top grades in high school.

By 2016, she expected to attend college, but that dream was dashed: Because Do Vale is not an American citizen, she is barred from receiving financial aid and therefore is fearful she cannot afford tuition.

Do Vale was among the more than 100 high school and college students who packed a State House hearing room on Wednesday to implore lawmakers to extend in-state tuition and state financial aid to unauthorized immigrants.

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“It’s hard to think that with all this sacrifice . . . college is still not an option,” she said in remarks before the Joint Committee for Higher Education. “It gets hard to stay hopeful.”

The hearing covered three bills on the issue. Separate proposals by Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz, a Jamaica Plain Democrat, and Representative Denise Provost, a Somerville Democrat, would offer in-state tuition to all Massachusetts high school graduates.

Twenty states and university systems have measures where undocumented students can receive in-state tuition, although some come with qualifiers, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

A Republican-backed bill sponsored by Senate minority leader Bruce Tarr of Gloucester and Senators Robert L. Hedlund of Weymouth and Richard J. Ross of Wrentham would block unauthorized immigrants from certain state tuition aid help without a vote from the Legislature. Tarr’s bill is cosponsored by three other Senate Republicans.

Some unauthorized students can receive in-state tuition under a federal program, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. To be eligible, an individual must be younger than 31, in school, maintain a clean record, and must have resided in the United States since 2007. Still, under DACA, prospective students cannot obtain state financial aid.

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The Massachusetts Taxpayer’s Foundation estimates there are 910 unauthorized students that graduate from state high schools every year. In its latest study, the foundation estimated new revenues for state colleges could reach over $7 million, if unauthorized students could attend at in-state rates.

Paying the in-state rate would have a dramatic impact. The total in-state cost at University of Massachusetts Amherst, for example, is $25,674 vs. $42,007 for out-of-state students.

In two hours of testimony Wednesday, just one person spoke in favor of the Republican bill, while about 50 supported the measures that would extend the in-state benefit.

Some students wore graduation caps and matching T-shirts, and held signs that said, “I support education equity for undocumented immigrants.”

Teachers, community members, clergy, and legal experts also testified before the committee. At 1 p.m., the panel had to switch rooms to accommodate all the public input.

The young people, organized through a community group called Student Immigration Movement, said they wanted lawmakers to tie faces and emotions to the legislation.

Justin Nguyen-Phoe, who immigrated from Vietnamto the United States at 13, called it “unjust” that he has to give up higher education after years of academic success. Isabella Corazzini, 15, said many of her family and friends live in constant fear of deportation, even though they are lifelong residents of the country.

Shannon Erwin is the state policy director of Massachusetts Immigrant & Refugee Advocacy Committee, broke down in tears during her testimony.

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“Hearing these stories . . . this is a room of some of the most driven young people in our state,” she said. “This would be a positive thing for all of us.”

Representative Marc Lombardo, a Billerica Republican, spoke against extending state tuition aid to all high school graduates. He said legal residents should not have to pay for “people who break the rules.”

“How is that fair?” Lombardo asked. “Why should hard-working taxpayers, who play by the rules, subsidize those who break them?”

He said state taxpayers spend $2 billion annually in aid to unauthorized immigrants. He said he worried that extending tuition assistance to immigrants here illegally could make Massachusetts a “magnate” for non-American citizens. He previously sponsored a bill to ban all unauthorized immigrants from receiving discounted tuition and state financial aid.

The National Conference of State Legislatures said five states — Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Indiana, and South Carolina — bar unauthorized immigrant students from receiving in-state educational benefits.

“It’s about fairness,” Lombardo repeated.

Tarr could not be reached for comment.

The Student Immigration Movement plans more events to “force the lawmakers’ hands,” a group coordinator said. Their goal is to secure an aid bill from the Legislature before the end of the year.

“I think this is the year we can get this out of committee, but we have to show lawmakers that the people they care about . . . care about this issue,” SIM coordinator Carlos Rojas Álvarez said.

When asked about Lombardo’s testimony, which characterized immigrants as rule-breakers, some students took it personally. Do Vale challenged the lawmaker to visit her mother, an immigrant who pays taxes and works hard, she said.

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Astead W. Herndon can be reached at astead.herndon@ globe.com.