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Undocumented Students Urge State Lawmakers to Grant Them In-State Tuition

Undocumented students gathered at the state Capitol Tuesday to urge lawmakers to grant them in-state tuition at Pennsylvania’s 18 state-owned and state-supported universities, citing their struggles to advance their education after high school without the same help afforded their peers.

Carina Ambartsoumian, 25, said her parents came to the United States from the former Soviet Union in 1993, fleeing religious persecution and hoping to attain refugee status. She said her family’s papers were not recognized by the newly independent Ukraine after the Soviet Union dissolved.

“Even though my parents and I have valid Social Security numbers and the ability to work and pay taxes in the United States, and therefore Pennsylvania, the United States has denied us status,” Ambartsoumian said.

The measure’s sponsor, Sen. Lloyd Smucker (R-Lancaster), said Pennsylvanians brought to the United States illegally as children have to pay as much as two and a half times the tuition rates of others who attend the same schools.

“To add an additional layer of difficulty, traditional student loans are denied them because of their immigration status,” said Smucker. “For many deserving high school graduates, this means forgoing college altogether and accepting that the key to their potential is forever lost.”

Pedro Rivera, superintendent of the Lancaster School District, said he sees the measure not as a cost, but as an investment.

“If we don’t embrace our youth, if we don’t embrace our communities, how much are we losing in terms of the richness of Pennsylvania culture?” he said.

Smucker’s bill has four GOP co-sponsors, including Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi. But House Republicans oppose the measure, saying it creates an incentive for illegal immigration.

“We fully support legal immigration, but we do not support people breaking the law," said House GOP spokesman Steve Miskin. "And in a sense, what this is, you’re subsidizing and incentivizing people breaking the law.”  

He also questioned where the money would come from for undocumented students’ in-state tuition, which is subsidized with state funding.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 12 states, including Texas, New York and Maryland, have laws providing for in-state tuition for immigrant students.