Providence, R.I. - Like legends, their names are ubiquitous. Talk to anyone about Rhode Island’s in-state tuition policy for undocumented students and it’s doubtless they’ll pop up in the conversation. In Italy, all roads might lead to Rome, but in Rhode Island, all roads lead to Michelle DePlante and Roberto Gonzalez, the all-star advocates for Rhode Island immigrants.
Both worked with the Coalition of Advocates for Student Opportunities (CASO) to promote the policy change that allows undocumented students to pay the in-state tuition price at public universities. DePlante says the process was “pretty contentious and long,” while Gonzalez opines it was “very frustrating.”
DePlante and community organizations like CASO work with the community to ensure they receive accurate information about the policy. In addition, they help students and families navigate the confusing terrain of college applications (a process that even documented citizens can find troublesome and annoying). Noting that it can be “really disillusioning” for students, DePlante stresses that public colleges need to be educated on the policy for it work.
Gonzalez, meanwhile, has specialized for years in immigration law. His legal acumen was key to crafting a knowledgeable argument for advocates. Patricia Martinez, Executive Director of Family Support Center at Central Falls High School, says Gonzalez is “almost synonymous with in-state tuition.”
There was “no policy in place for immigrants for the longest time,” says Gonzalez. When Governor Lincoln Chafee assumed office in 2011 and consolidated the Board of Regents and the Board of Governors, advocates seized the opportunity to push for a policy change. They found a willing ally in Eva Mancuso, the current Chair of the Rhode Island Board of Education.
Gonzalez says the Latino Policy Institute report on in-state tuition was another tool useful for advocates. Timely and well-argued, it showed the policy-makers that “if anything, the [policy] would give money to the state,” says Gonzalez, not take it away, as opponents suggested. The report thus was an “instrumental piece of the puzzle” for advocates, says Gonzalez.
Gonzalez recalls with verve the meeting that ultimately cemented the policy change. “It turned out to be quite a spectacle,” he says, “There were so many people that came out both in favor and against the policy that they had to move the meeting. [It was] a long, ugly meeting.” Despite the “almost hysterical form” of the policy’s opponents, the night ended in a unanimous vote in favor of the policy change.
“It wasn’t difficult with the Board [of Education] at all,” says Mancuso of the decision, citing “ignorant and ill-informed testimony” from the policy’s opponents as the dragon much more difficult to slay.
With their hard work behind them, the community advocates turn their attention to all the hard work still unfinished. Advocates especially want the State’s legislature to pass the bill that will mirror the policy change. DePlante says policy is good, but can be changed “fairly easily,” and adds that its failure to pass this year was a “little disappointing.”
“I have a feeling that I’m close,” says Representative Grace Diaz on the passage of the bill. Gonzalez says there is “more support every year” for the bill since its introduction, and is hopeful next year might see its passage. DePlante adds that the bill has seen an increasingly diverse range of support in recent years: 40 organizations back the bill “ranging from RI Kids Count to the Nigerian Association of Rhode Island,” she says.
Alex Castro, RWU ‘14