DENVER (AP) -- Immigrant students will pay significantly less in tuition at Colorado colleges under legislation signed by Gov. John Hickenlooper on Monday.
Hundreds cheered as the Democratic governor ratified legislation that was first proposed a decade ago but regularly rejected under less favorable circumstances for people in the U.S. illegally.
"Holy smokes, are you guys fired up?" he asked the loud, spirited crowd at the Metropolitan State University of Denver. "Yeah, I thought so."
Colorado becomes the fourteenth state to allow immigrants who graduate from state high schools to attend colleges at the tuition rate other in-state students pay, rather than a higher rate paid by out-of-state students.
This month, a similar proposal was signed into law in Oregon. Texas was the first pass such a measure in June 2001.
Among those in attendance at the signing ceremony was Val Vigil, a former lawmaker who first introduced the bill in 2003 when only a few states had passed it. At the time, only two people signed up to testify in favor of the bill in committee, he recalled, and more than 20 people showed up to oppose it.
When the plan was discussed in 2008, immigrant students who signed up to testify in favor had their names turned over to federal immigration authorities by opponents of the bill.
When the bill was heard in the House Education Committee in February, no opponents signed up to testify.
"It took 10 years of coalition building," Vigil said.
The new law grants in-state tuition for Colorado high school graduates regardless of their immigration status. To qualify, students must also sign an affidavit saying they are seeking, or will seek, legal status in the U.S.
The out-of-state rate immigrants in Colorado had been required to pay is sometimes more than three times higher than the in-state rate.
"Every kid matters," Hickenlooper said. "We need every child that we can get to be as educated as they are capable."
Other states that allow in-state tuition for immigrants in the country illegally include California, Utah and Connecticut.
Oscar Juarez, originally from Mexico City, has attended Metro State for two semesters. The 21-year-old moved to Colorado from Arizona after lawmakers there passed a strict immigration enforcement law a few years ago.
"And now having to pay less, it's a lot easier and a lot less stress for myself and my parents as well," he said.
Juarez said he's seen the opinions of the public and Colorado lawmakers change in recent years. He said he has seen "the hatred from people" decline.
People outside of the immigrant community are "actually comprehending on our problems" and realizing that immigrants such as himself are "just here to have a successful life and give to this country."
Democrats unanimously supported the bill and a handful of Republicans joined them. In years past there has been opposition from both sides.
The majority of Republican lawmakers still opposed the measure but said during debates they sympathized with immigrant students.
Republicans argued that the overall immigration system is flawed and needs to change. They said that because the students are not in the country legally they will be unable to find work after college and that the tuition change would only give them false hope.
Supporters repeatedly argued that wasn't the case.
"Today we're here to tell you," said state Sen. Mike Johnston, one of the sponsors of the bill, "in Colorado that the doors are open and the dream is alive."
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