"This is the only state in the country that bypassed the General Assembly to authorize [in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants]."

Doreen Costa on Monday, March 26th, 2012 in a radio talk show.

Rhode Island state Rep. Doreen Costa says that Rhode Island is the only state that approved in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants without passing a law.

In a far-reaching decision last September, the Rhode Island Board of Governors for Higher Education voted to make undocumented immigrants eligible for in-state tuition at public colleges. The move was backed by Governor Chafee, but it came only after years of failed attempts to make the change through the General Assembly.

After the vote, opponents complained that the Chafee administration had forced through a sweeping change in state policy through the back door. And almost immediately, some legislators started working to have the decision overturned.

State Rep. Doreen Costa is among those leading the charge in the General Assembly. During a recent appearance on WHJJ’s "Helen Glover Show," the North Kingstown Republican talked about legislation she introduced in January that would repeal the Board of Governors’ decision.

"This is the only state in the country that bypassed the General Assembly to authorize this," Costa said during the March 26 show. "There was a process that should have been done and the governor chose not to do it."

Much has been written in The Journal and other publications about Rhode Island’s decision to offer reduced tuition to undocumented immigrants. Many of those stories have said that Rhode Island is the only state that did so without first passing a law enacting the policy.

But in light of the controversy that continues to swirl around the issue, and Costa’s claim, we thought it would be helpful to revisit that specific question.

First, some background. State Rep. Grace Diaz, D-Providence, has introduced bills in the General Assembly every year since 2004 to extend in-state tuition to undocumented students in good academic standing. But those bills never got far.

During the Carcieri administration, Diaz and other supporters of the policy had also tried unsuccessfully to get the Board of Governors to consider the change.

Only after Chafee took office last year did the board -- with new members appointed by Chafee -- take up the issue. And on Sept. 26, its members voted unanimously to adopt the change.

In the days afterward, Costa and other lawmakers made no secret of their displeasure with the vote, saying the decision was for the General Assembly to make, not the board. In response to a Journal poll, 19 of the 38 state senators and 26 of the 75 state representatives said they opposed the board’s decision.

Under the new policy, which is set to go into effect this September, undocumented students are eligible for reduced, in-state tuition if they meet certain guidelines. Those include that they have attended an approved Rhode Island high school for three or more years or received a GED, and continue to live in Rhode Island; and that they file an affidavit with their chosen college saying they have taken separate action to legalize their citizenship status, or will do so as soon as they become eligible.

The vote by the Board of Governors made Rhode Island the 13th state to adopt such a policy. (Wisconsin, which had passed a law on reduced tuition in 2009, repealed it last year and is not included in the list.)

And, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, every other state that has the policy did in fact pass a law first, starting with Texas in 2001 and followed by California (2001), Utah (2002), New York (2002), Washington (2003), Oklahoma (2003), Illinois (2003), Kansas (2004), New Mexico (2005), Nebraska (2006), Maryland (2011) and, most recently, Connecticut (2011).

We double-checked the legislation in each state. The NCSL’s information is correct.

Our ruling

State Rep. Doreen Costa said that Rhode Island is the only state that decided to allow in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants without enacting a law first.

The Rhode Island Board of Governors made the move as a matter of policy. In the dozen other states that offer reduced tuition to undocumented students it is a matter of law.

State Rep. Grace Diaz has once again submitted a bill to write the policy into law. But until her legislation passes, the Ocean State will stand alone on this issue.

We rule Costa’s statement True.

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