BOSTON/State House - Over 11 days ago, activists from the Student Immigrant Movement began a vigil outside the State House to protest a budget amendment recently passed by the Mass. Senate that would - among other things - bar them from attending public colleges in the Commonwealth at the same in-state tuition rate as other area students.
SIM is led by children of undocumented immigrants who have attended public K-12 schools in Massachusetts, and has been organizing to win in-state tuition reform for the last few years. Many of its members were at the top of their classes in high school but have been denied state scholarships and financial aid solely because of their families' immigration status - and ultimately thanks to what they view as a broken federal immigration system.
SIM's Mass Hope 2010 vigil began after the passage of Senate budget amendment 172.1 - which was initiated by the body's 5 Republicans, but succeeded with the ready support of several Democrats in late May. The amendment took the students and many observers off-guard by explicitly attacking proposed in-state tuition reforms that had growing support in the legislature. The reforms would allow an estimated 400 students from undocumented immigrant families to go to Mass. public colleges at the in-state resident tuition rate every year.
Lily Huang, a SIM organizer, explained the genesis of her organization's vigil, "[Several days ago], my friends from the Student Immigrant Movement and I met for our regular meeting. We started talking about the Massachusetts Senate amendments - SA 172.1 - and were angry that these very hateful, anti-immigrant and costly amendments were introduced in less than 24 hours, were debated on for less than 20 minutes and passed 28-10. We were scared because this affects the very existence of our lives in our communities but it also affects all residents of Massachusetts, whether citizen or immigrant, documented or undocumented. Students started sharing their own stories of how this would affect their lives, their families and their communities.
"Adriana just graduated from high school and is working full-time. Her mother is diabetic and needs medication. If these amendments pass, the rest of her family will be forced to go back to Mexico and Maria, a 17-year old, will be left in E. Boston without her mom and without her family’s support.
"Mara is a student at a university in Boston. She is also diabetic and needs insulin to survive. If these budget amendments pass, she will be forced to leave school and Massachusetts, the only home she knows, and to go Chile, a country that she doesn’t know and where she doesn’t know anyone.
"Tessie is a student but she spent her college savings to take care of her pregnant sister. Now Erika and her sister are taking care of the one month old baby. She is terrified that if someone reported her and her sister, there would be no one to tell law enforcement that they are the baby’s guardians and that their baby should be with them.
"After hearing our friends’ stories, we knew we had to do something and we had to turn fear into hope and action."
Open Media Boston asked Senate President Therese Murray (D-Plymouth) to comment on the student vigil, and received the following response from David Falcone, Murray's director of communications, "The president has nothing to add on this topic. Her thoughts on the matter were reported after the amendment passed last month during Senate budget debate. The amendment was offered by Sen. Panagiotakos during Senate budget debate and the members approved it. The Senate budget is now in conference committee with the House budget. We'll see if the amendment makes it into the final conference budget that will be released soon."
Murray did not fully support Senate amendment 172.1, but allowed it to pass - indicating that it had the backing of the Senate.
The six-member 2011 budget conference committee was named the same day the students began their vigil - and includes a number of supporters of the anti-immigrant amendment. The Senate appointed Sen. Steven Panagiotakos (D-Lowell), Sen. Stephen Brewer (D-Barre), and Sen. Michael Knapik (R-Westfield). The House appointed Rep. Charles Murphy (D-Burlington), Rep. Barbara L'Italien (D-Andover), and Rep. Robert Hargraves (R-Groton).
The immigrant students have vowed to keep up the vigil until amendment 172.1 is removed from the final budget in conference committee or by Gov. Deval Patrick before he signs it into law. They say they have modeled their action on a similar vigil that has been ongoing in Arizona since that state's passage of an anti-immigrant law, SB 1070, in April. SIM is using the vigil as a platform from which to organize a series of public rallies, lobbying efforts, and press conferences - and they have stepped up pressure to get Democratic leaders like Murray and Patrick to publicly support them.
Meanwhile, Senate Minority Leader Richard Tisei (R-Wakefield), the 2010 Republican candidate for lieutenant governor and a key sponsor of amendment 172.1, remains strongly in favor of its provisions - a view shared by many fellow legislators, "The Senate amendment will ensure that a wide range of public benefits remain available to legal immigrants residing in Massachusetts, unlike the false claims and misconceptions being floated by opponents. We have thousands of people currently sitting on waiting lists for public housing and other state assistance programs, including many non-citizens who are in this country legally and following a path to citizenship. It would be unfair to pass them over and deny them these benefits by using the state's limited resources to reward people who are breaking the law."
But the tough opposition is apparently only strengthening the students' resolve. Deivid Ribeiro of SIM said, "This is a prayer that these amendments don't pass. I can't sit by while there are laws like these that threaten everything me and my community stands for. It's unacceptable that a few vocal people put out these unjust laws to punish the rest of us. This is not the way of Massachusetts and I'm involved in this vigil to stand up against this. We have to be visible and we have to resist. The amendments put my future on the line and I have to be willing to stand up to protect my family and my dreams."
Over 25 local advocacy organizations and labor unions have backed Mass Hope 2010, including MICAH, Cooperative Metropolitan Ministries, Resist the Raids, Centro Presente, El movimiento estudiantes latin@s, Voices of Liberation, Veterans for Peace, Asian American Resource Workshop, International Socialist Organization, Party for Socialism and Liberation, MIRA Coalition, SEIU 615, Jobs with Justice, Arlington Street Church, New Sanctuary Movement, Irish Immigrant Center, ANSWER Coalition, Boston May Day Committee, Public Higher Education Network of Massachusetts, Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center, Chinese Progressive Association, Immigrant Worker Center Collaborative, Brazilian Immigrants Center, Boston Interpreters Collective, International Action Center,
Sociedad Latina, Student Labor Action Movement (Harvard),and Cambridge Community Services (City Links and Creative Action Project).