HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — Year after year, immigrant students without legal status in the U.S. stood in the halls of the Connecticut Capitol building, patiently waiting to tell a state legislator their story.
They spoke about arriving in the U.S. as young children, graduating from Connecticut high schools and wanting to attend college but finding it difficult to cover the cost without government aid.
They hoped to persuade the General Assembly to pass legislation making them eligible to apply, beginning Jan. 1, 2020, for institutional financial assistance at state-run colleges and universities — a pot of money funded by tuition payments from all students.
On Thursday, following a daylong debate in the House of Representatives, that face-to-face lobbying proved successful. The chamber voted 91-59 in favor of this year’s version of the bill, which previously passed the Senate, 30-5. Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy signed it Friday afternoon in his office, with grinning students looking on.
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“We knew we had the votes to pass this year,” said Carolina Bortolleto, the 29-year-old campaign manager for the group CT Students for a Dream and a recipient of the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.
Bortolleto says the students learned over the years to transform the issue from a political one to a personal one.
In fact, supportive lawmakers spoke glowingly of the students during Thursday’s debate. Mansfield Rep. Gregg Haddad, the Democratic co-chairman of the higher education committee, became choked up as he spoke about “an amazing group of young students who have literally camped out at the Capitol” and their dedication to improving higher education opportunities for young immigrants. Besides the financial aid bill, the students successfully helped to pass a bill in 2015 allowing students without legal status to qualify for less expensive in-state tuition rates at state-run colleges and universities.
Bortolleto said the policies in Washington D.C. concerning immigrants, including a push by the Trump administration to end DACA, also helped fuel bipartisan support for this year’s version of the aid bill.
While some opponents of the financial aid legislation expressed empathy for the students, they also voiced concern about the broadness of the legislation and concerns it could somehow adversely affect students living in the country legally.
“It really does not sit well with me,” said Rep. Joe Polletta, R-Watertown, whose family emigrated from Italy.
The immigrant students began their lobbying efforts in 2013, undaunted by predictions from Connecticut state Capitol veterans it could take at least four or five years to get a bill passed by the General Assembly. Over time, Bortolleto said, the students learned to work outside the building as well, collecting petitions and holding events in lawmakers’ districts to educate voters about their cause.
“That’s how we got the support of a lot of legislators that we hadn’t in the past,” she said. “In the end, it has to come from the constituents themselves.”
Malloy gave credit to the students who kept pushing for the legislation, including those who’ve since graduated from college. They won’t benefit from the new law themselves, he said, but “their brothers and sisters, literally and figuratively” will be helped.
“When other people might have been discouraged and left the field, they stayed on,” he said, also crediting the lawmakers and other supporters who worked on the bill.
CT Students for a Dream has grown into an organization with a part-time staff of seven, about 20 volunteer interns, a crew of 20 to 30 other active volunteers and students, and 50 to 200 people who will reliably turn out for rallies. Besides pushing for state legislation, the group works regularly in five Connecticut high schools to help immigrant students get into college. The group, which began seeking grant funding in 2015, also runs leadership programs for young immigrants during the school year in three high schools and during the summer in two towns, where students learn how to design campaigns to improve their communities.
Bortolleto admits being surprised by the group’s success.
“I don’t think it’s sunk in yet,” she said. “A group of immigrant youth passed a law for the second time in Connecticut.”