In the midst of the national debate over immigration, the University of Hawaii system is poised to begin treating undocumented students as state residents — a move that would make it less expensive to attend college and open up career paths for perhaps hundreds of young people.

The state Senate’s lone Republican, Sam Slom, however, called the move an “end run” around the Legislature. The proposed policy change comes one year after Hawaii lawmakers rejected a similar proposal.

Still, Lui Hokoana, the university’s associate vice president for student affairs, said he expects the university’s Board of Regents on Thursday to approve the proposal, which would charge the students in-state tuition, if they meet certain criteria.

Illegal immigrants now pay non-resident tuition of $11,000 per semester at UH’s Manoa campus. As residents, they would pay $4,000 per semester. State residents attending UH community colleges pay approximately $1,200 per semester, compared to $3,500 per semester for non-residents.

If the proposal passes, students could qualify as residents if they can show that they have lived in Hawaii for at least the past 12 months, graduated from a high school in the United States and sign an affidavit saying they plan to seek legal status. The move comes as Congress and President Barack Obama are poised to begin the debate over how to allow a path toward citizenship for illegal immigrants. The university’s proposal was spurred by Obama’s signing of an executive order last year, modeled after the proposed Dream Act, protecting undocumented people who came to the United States as minors from deportation.

Hokoana last week stressed the changes are limited. “We want to make sure they’re true Dreamers, undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as minors, and didn’t have have a choice of coming to us,” he said.

“It’s the right thing to do, because these students are contributing citizens of Hawaii,” Hokoana said. “They’ve been here so long, we should consider them our own. They’re part of our family.”

Twelve other states — California, Connecticut, Illinois, Kansas, Maryland, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah, Washington — have passed similar measures.

Hokoana cited as an example a student who came to Maui when he was 3 or 4 years old. His parents never told him he was undocumented. During his junior year in high school, he tried to join the ROTC program and his parents told him he didn’t have citizenship.

Board of Regents Chairman Eric Martinson did not return a message left last week.

Slom, a strong critic of last year’s legislative proposal to treat illegal immigrants as residents at all state universities and colleges, opposed the University of Hawaii proposal. He argued that reducing tuition for some would add further financial stress on the university at a time when tuition is rising.

He said also that impacted youths in Hawaii would gain a benefit not available to U.S. citizens who already have to pay higher out-of-state tuition at the University of Hawaii and elsewhere.

“The idea was brought to the Legislature and it did not pass. What the university is doing, on its own, is basically an end run,” Slom said. Concern about undocumented youths being perceived as receiving preferential treatment led to its demise, he said.

“Just living here doesn’t confer citizenship or residency,” Slom said. “I’m willing to look at situations on a individual basis, instead of granting someone residency status just to follow President Obama.”

Hokoana said the immediate financial impacts on the university would be minimal. Only seven current students would see their tuition decrease, he said. However, he estimated that number could grow to about 300 because many students who now cannot afford non-resident tuition would likely enroll. Hokoana said that would not necessarily mean a loss of revenue, however, because many of those students would not have been able to afford attending school at the higher tuition.

Hokoana said the change would not affect admissions in most instances because most programs allow anyone meeting minimum requirements to enroll. However, he said, the change could have an impact in some specialized programs that are largely limited to Hawaii residents.

Advocates said the characterization of the move as an “end run” is unfair because state legislators gave colleges and universities authority to set tuition for illegal immigrants several years ago.

While the discussion here mirrors the national debate, the numbers of illegal immigrants in Hawaii are relatively small. According to 2011 study by the Pew Hispanic Center, a project of the Pew Research Center, 11.2 million unauthorized immigrants were living in the United States in March 2010, virtually unchanged from a year earlier. That followed a two-year decline from the peak of 12 million in 2007 to 11.1 million in 2009. The study estimated the number of children born to at least one unauthorized-immigrant parent nationally at 350,000.

There are no similar statistics available for undocumented children in Hawaii. Pew estimated that there are about 40,000 undocumented people in Hawaii, about 3.1 percent of the total population. Pew also estimated the state has about 30,000 undocumented workers in Hawaii, about 4.6 percent of the total workforce.

By comparison, Pew estimated there are 2.5 million illegal immigrants in California, 6.8 percent of the population, and 1.8 million undocumented workers, 9.7 percent of the workforce.

In Hawaii, Drew Astolfi, state director of Faith Action for Community Equity (FACE), said a portion of the state’s undocumented population are Latino and Filipino immigrants who have overstayed their visas. His organization pushed for the tuition change with the Legislature, and failing there, with the university. He said another group are Tongans who had traditionally been allowed to live and work in the United States without citizenship, until immigration laws were tightened after 9/11, stranding them as undocumented residents.

Astolfi, among others, supported the changes, saying the state would benefit “by further developing our people, since so much of the new economy depends upon a well educated workforce.” Students, he said, “will obviously benefit by getting to better themselves by going to college.”

Indeed, a 2011 study by Georgetown University’s Center for Education and the Workforce found that those who’ve earned bachelor’s degrees earn about $2.27 million over their lifetime. In comparison, those who’ve attended some college but haven’t earned a degree earn $1.55 million and those with only a high school diploma earn $1.3 million over their lifetime.

Hawaii State Sen. Jill Tokuda, chair of the Education Committee and a member of the Higher Education Committee, also supports the change. “This makes the dream real for a lot of our students,” she said.

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