Student Immigrant Movement works for educational equity

The group is hoping an education bill that would lower tuition rates for undocumented students will move out of committee sooner rather than later.

Olivia Lowenberg/Staff
Carlos Rojas-Álvarez speaks with a reporter from the Spanish-language network Univision.

On Thursday afternoon, students affiliated with the Student Immigrant Movement (SIM) held a peaceful protest at the office of Massachusetts State Senator Eileen Donoghue (D) of Lowell, in an attempt to persuade the senator to publicly support the Education Equity Act. They brought their SAT and ACT study books with a simple goal: to sit and study for their college-entrance exams in the senator’s office until she agreed to meet with them.  

First introduced in January 2015, the Education Equity Act would allow qualified undocumented students who spent three or more years in Massachusetts high schools to pay the in-state tuition rates at the state's public colleges. Currently, if they wish to attend such an institution, undocumented immigrant students are required to pay out-of-state tuition rates. They are also prevented from accessing Massachusetts’ financial aid money, even though they and their families pay taxes. There was a well-attended hearing in July to move the bill out of committee, but there has been no movement on a vote since then.

Carlos Rojas-Álvarez, SIM’s campaign coordinator, is frustrated about the lack of momentum. Wearing a symbolic mortarboard hat for the protest, and carrying his SAT study books under one arm, he told The Christian Science Montor in an interview, “What we’re asking for is that the senator to meet with us and with undocumented students from our organization, that have been fighting for this legislation, and we’re asking her to publicly support this legislation … seven other members of her committee, including senators, support this legislation, [and] this senator represents a district that is overwhelmingly immigrant.”

Carlos came to the United States from Colombia with his family as a young child, fleeing poverty and the threat of violence. He attended public schools in Boston until he was eighteen, graduating from the Boston Latin School in 2012. But rules that require undocumented students to pay out-of-state tuition costs have meant that attending college is prohibitively expensive. He and other members of SIM have been pushing to meet one-on-one with the senator since May, even before the hearing.

According to the Lowell Sun, Donoghue could not meet with the students on Thursday because she was attending a conference. Members of her staff listened to the students' stories and told them that they would share them with the senator. 

"We remain open and we are planning on holding a meeting as well, so please rest assured that your voices – we're listening, we are," Emiley Lockhart, Donoghue's general counsel and policy adviser, said, according to the Lowell Sun. "We're really listening. We're doing the best we can to make sure we can hear everybody."

The Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), a nonpartisan group, is opposed to the bill, saying that it will raise taxes in Massachusetts and cost colleges and universities thousands of dollars in lost income, resulting in, among other things, tighter budgets and lower faculty salaries. They are concerned that offering the opportunity of higher education to undocumented students will limit the options available for legal residents of the US and foreign-born students who have valid visas.

But Mr. Rojas-Álvarez does not agree. “The colleges and universities want this,” he says. “They’re not at capacity, they want to attract more talented students, whether they’re undocumented or not … [What we ask] is that we have a fair shot at getting into college if we’re qualified and we get into these schools.”

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