DENVER - A proposal to let illegal immigrant students pay in-state tuition at Colorado colleges got its first-ever Republican votes in the state Senate on Friday after a decade of failures for the bill.
Just a handful of years ago, the bill couldn't even pass the Democratic-controlled Senate. But Friday's vote puts Senate Bill 33 on track to pass the Legislature by this spring.
Two freshmen Republican senators supported the bill, and one of the Legislature's senior members - Sen. Greg Brophy, R-Wray - said he has had a change of heart after getting to know the children of illegal immigrants in his Eastern Plains district.
The bill allows young people who crossed the border illegally with their parents to pay in-state tuition at public colleges, as long as they attended a Colorado high school for three years and graduated, and take steps toward becoming legal citizens.
Brophy talked about a student he knows who, Brophy said, at the moment was a net recipient of Colorado tax dollars thanks to his free public education. Without this bill, Brophy said, the boy wouldn't be able to contribute much to society.
"He should be an engineer. He should be making $150,000 a year instead of $20,000, and then he would be paying us back in spades for his subsidized education," Brophy said.
Despite his arguments, the bill remains controversial.
Sen. Kevin Lundberg, R-Berthoud, helped lead the opposition.
"Make no doubt about it. Amnesty starts today here in the policies for the state of Colorado," Lundberg said.
Other Republicans questioned the bill's claim that it would boost college budgets, without costing more taxpayer money.
Sen. Ted Harvey, R-Highlands Ranch, called it a "Jedi mind trick."
"There are no illegal immigrants," Harvey said. "Just move on. Don't look at the numbers here."
The bill died last year in the House, which was under Republican control at the time. But two other events have eased its way to passage this year.
First, President Barack Obama's executive order last year allows young people without criminal records to apply for "deferred action" on deportation and get permission to stay in the country legally for a time.
And second, the politics on the issue changed after the November election. In Washington, a bipartisan group of senators is pushing for federal immigration reform, and Brophy echoed the arguments of some national Republicans on Friday.
"I want the GOP to become a Grand Opportunity Party," he said.
Still, he acknowledged the tough politics.
"You have nothing to lose voting for this bill," Brophy told Democrats, and then gestured to his party's side of the chamber. "The folks over on this side of the aisle who vote for this bill are risking everything, politically speaking. It takes a lot of courage to vote for this bill."
Republican Sens. Larry Crowder of Alamosa and Owen Hill of Colorado Springs also expressed support for the bill Friday.
Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, maintained her opposition. In-state tuition only offers false hope to students who will not be able to work legally after graduation, Roberts has said.
The bill passed the Senate on an initial voice vote, and a final roll call vote is scheduled for Monday.