By Mary E. O'Leary
All that talk of "the sky's the limit" and other encouragement from her teachers at New Milford High School for the past year left Maria Praeli anxious and worried as she saw her options narrowing, unlike the future her fellow students were facing.
That has now changed for Praeli, who will be a senior this fall.
"Today is a new day with a new reality. ... I don't have to hide anymore, because my dreams of an opportunity for college are more possible," Praeli said Thursday, as she addressed lawmakers and friends gathered at Wilbur Cross High School.
Praeli, 18, an illegal immigrant from Peru who was brought here by her parents as a five-year-old, is one of the hundreds of illegal immigrant students who now qualify for in-state tuition rates at state colleges and universities.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy held a ceremonial signing of the bill that was first introduced in 2005, vetoed by then-Gov. M. Jodi Rell in 2007 and adopted this year by lawmakers after he campaigned in favor of the change.
"We are celebrating the success of a new generation of people who, by their very presence and perseverance, will repay us many times over," Malloy told the crowd of well-wishers and longtime advocates. Having researched his family tree, Malloy said in all likelihood, he also is the grandchild or great-grandchild of an illegal immigrant who emigrated from Ireland in the 19th century.
Connecticut is the 13th state to allow students who are here illegally to continue their education at tuition rates equal to those of other residents. This bill is tougher than most, however, as it requires that students completed all four years of high school in Connecticut.
But even as Connecticut's law went into effect this month, it remains a controversial subject across the country, with Maryland voters successfully petitioning to put repeal of its newly adopted in-state law on the ballot in November.
Federal law stipulates that all students, regardless of legal status, be afforded a public school education through twelfth grade.
At the University of Connecticut, undergraduate full-time tuition and fees are $10,670 for residents versus $27,566 for non-residents. In-state rates for the four Connecticut State University schools are $8,248 versus $18,872 for nonresidents, while annual in-state tuition and fees for residents at the community colleges is $3,490 versus $10,430 for nonresidents.
"This was a good cause. We did it for the right reasons. These are children that have attended our schools for years. ... These kids, they are intellectual capital we cannot let go to waste," said state Rep. Juan Candelaria, D-New Haven, who led the floor debate in the state House.
"This bill ... is a sign of hope and a sign of faith in the potential of our young people, and we must not place any roadblocks in the path of those who aspire with energy and ability for a better life. We need to have all of these people fully able to contribute to our state's future," said state Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney, D-New Haven, who lobbied for it for years.
Looney said their motivation to succeed is what constitutes the American dream.
The majority leader and others directed much of their thanks to Malloy, whose support, they said, made the difference in passage.
Looney also acknowledged the work of St. Rose of Lima Church in New Haven and its pastor, the Rev. James Manship, and Congregations Organized for a New Connecticut, both of which worked for the change for the past few years and helped raise funds for students as public financial aid will still not be available.
Support for the bill was split, with most Republicans voting against it and both sides offering personal stories of struggle to support their positions. Many referred to earlier generations of relatives who immigrated legally as the better path.
One fear was that legal students would be denied places at the state colleges, but supporters estimated that the number of illegal immigrants who will take advantage of the law will still be small, as the cost may still be prohibitive. continues to be a struggle.
The acting head of the new board of regents for higher education in the state has talked about capping entrance to the community colleges as one way to deal with a budget crunch facing the state.
Asked about it, Malloy said: "Effectively enrollments in some senses have been limited by space already. Not every student is guaranteed to take every course on every occasion that they want to take it."
Barbara Richards, a longtime sociology teacher at Housatonic Community College, has worked to change the law since 2004. She said that, in all that time, none of the illegal immigrant students she knows were able to obtain a college education. "I'm expecting them now to start coming, and I'm very excited about it," said Richards, who was a former alderwoman in New Haven.