CONCORD — Students who entered the country illegally would be eligible for in-state tuition at University System of New Hampshire schools under a bill lawmakers will act on this month.
"These children in many cases were brought here when they were very young," said bill sponsor Peter Schmidt, D-Dover. "We should not punish them for something that is no fault of their own."
However, opponents of the bill, which was approved by the House Education Committee on a largely partisan 11-7 vote, say illegal residents should not pay lower tuition than legal residents from other states.
House Bill 474 would require the students to apply for legal residency or sign an affidavit that they will apply for legal residency as soon as they are eligible to do so. Under a 2012 law, all students seeking in-state tuition must sign an affidavit that they are legal residents of the United States. A copy of the application for legal residency or the affidavit must be filed with the University System.
Students would have to meet all current requirements for in-state tuition. They would also have to have lived in the state at least three years and have graduated from a state high school or a program to obtain a high school equivalency certificate.
An estimated 100 students would be eligible for in-state tuition through the proposed legislation.
Schmidt said he introduced the bill, which has been filed before but killed, at the request of the American Friends Service Committee.
"I thought it was an issue that ought to be discussed and debated by the Legislature," said Schmidt, who taught at the University of New Hampshire for 10 years.
But others argue the state should leave immigration issues to the federal government, which to date has failed to approve any major changes in the current system.
House Education Committee member Rep. Ralph Boehm, R-Litchfield, said in a message to House colleagues "It is not right for your children or grandchildren to not be able to take a course because it is filled by illegal residents."
Boehm said the federal government has repeatedly said immigration is its purview and the states should not interfere.
Under a federal law passed in the 1990s, illegal immigrants are not eligible for in-state tuition rates, but more than a dozen states have since passed laws to circumvent that provision. Similar legislation is pending in a number of states, including Massachusetts.
"We are taking about kids who grew up in New Hampshire, went to school in New Hampshire, graduated from high school in New Hampshire, and want to continue their education in New Hampshire" said Arnie Alpert of the American Friends Service Committee.
The House Education Committee decided to retain the bill, which allowed members to refine it before lawmakers decide its fate.
The university system took no position on the bill.
Schmidt said he had not seen the changes the committee made to the bill, but suspects its members have expertise he does not have.
"If it improves the opportunities for these kids, then I will support it," Schmidt said. "It is not in the state's best interest to say 'You don't count, you have no rights and you do not have a right to make contributions to this country."
If the House passes the bill, the Senate will still have to approve it before it would go to Gov. Maggie Hassan, who would have to decide whether to sign it, veto it or let it go into law without her signature.
The bill is scheduled to come before the House Jan. 15.
In-state tuition and out-of-state tuition is respectively:
• University of New Hampshire: $13,670 and $26,390;
• Plymouth State University: $10,410 and $17,830;
• Keene State College: $10,410 and $17,795;
• University of New Hampshire-Manchester, $13,350 and $26,070;
• Granite State College: $285 per credit hour, $305.