Yesterday, Senator Joyce Elliott (D) of Little Rock led an hour long hearing on the floor concerning legislation to allow undocumented immigrants, who have attended 3 years of high school in the state or obtained a G.E.D. in Arkansas, to pay in-state tuition rates for postsecondary education. Advocates testified for the Senate to invest in children who were brought to Arkansas and have succeeded in the school system. Republican legislators expressed concern that allowing undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition rates would reward crime or tax the education system.
This hearing, a Committee of the Whole, effectively turns a regular floor session into a committee hearing replete with testimony from activists, business leaders, and educators. This maneuver results in a prolonged discussion on a pending piece of legislation. In effect, Elliott got a chance to showcase SB 915 and make her case with the help of some powerful testimony.
If Elliott sought to persuade Republican legislators, she may have been foiled by their conspicuous absence. Less than half of the Republican Senators were in the chamber throughout the duration of the testimony, while nearly every Democrat was seated.
The Chancellor of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, Joel Anderson, opened the discussion by arguing that being the first in a family to attend college can benefit a family for generations. Anderson noted, “It means a lot to a family to be the first in college. I encourage you to think in those terms.” He also attempted to allay concerns that this legislation would lead to a flood of undocumented students by citing that only 52 Hispanics graduated from UALR in the past year and that states like Texas already do this.
Corey Anderson, a vice president at the Rockefeller Foundation, argued that, “Arkansans must invest in the future of immigrant families.” Anderson cited figures from a Rockefeller Foundation report that found for every $1 of immigrant aid, $7 was returned in taxes and business revenue.
The testimony of Rosa Velazquez, an undocumented immigrant, held the attention of most of the Senate. Velazquez told the chamber how she had received scholarships to Ouachita Baptist University, only to have them rescinded when she could not provide a social security number. Throughout portions of her testimony Velazquez was near tears when describing the despair she felt because of the limitations to prosperity she and her family has and may always face.
The Senate, always obsessed with candy, provided another episode of sugar inspired indifference when Lt. Governor Darr (R) wolfed down a pack of M&M’s during a poignant moment in Velazquez’s testimony.
Senator Larry Teague (D), referring to Velazquez and her party in the gallery, rose from his seat and said, “I want everyone to know these are my people and I appreciate them, I really mean that.”
In the aftermath of Velazquez’s testimony, Joyce Elliott chastised the absent Senators by noting that, “every seat, every one, was filled for Big River [Steel Mill]”.
Senator Johnny Key (R) of Mountain Home asked Velazquez if, at the age of five, she had discussed with her parents that coming to America illegally might not be right. Velazquez, a bit stunned, answered that she was only five and was raised to listen to her parents.
Key was also troubled that Velazquez, an undocumented immigrant, was standing in the middle of the Senate. Key asked her several times if she was nervous that she would be deported because of coming to public meetings like this. Velazquez replied she was not worried, and had to do what she had to do.
Toward the end of the discussion of SB 915 Senator Teague asked Chancellor Anderson, “What do I say to the great majority of my constituents who don’t think this is a good idea?” Anderson replied, “This is a piece of immigration reform that gets tangled with issues of border security and wages. This is not rewarding law breaking. The beneficiaries are minors who came to this country not of their own volition or will. Don’t confuse this with the emotions of other issues.”
Elliott closed the discussion by stating, “Imagine the only thing that stood between you and your future was 18 votes.”
Upon the close of the hearing Senator Teague rushed to an exiting Velazquez to lend her a handkerchief and talk with her outside the chamber.
Similar legislation passed the House in 2005 and failed in the Senate by one vote. The 2005 legislature was controlled by Democrats in both chambers; the opposite is true in the current legislature. The bill remains in committee.