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Should the state pay tuition for undocumented students?

Mayor Ed Murray, front, takes part in a ride to celebrate the launch of a bike-share program. Credit: Josh Cohen

Tania Santiago and Carlos Padilla moved from separate cities in Mexico to the United States before they were old enough to enter kindergarten. Tania and Carlos both grew up around Puget Sound, went to school, joined extra-curricular activities. Both went to the University of Washington (although Carlos switched to Seattle Central Community College for a while because of the costs), picked up some private scholarships along the way and plan to become attorneys. Carlos, 20, wants to become a U.S. Air Force pilot first, while Tania, 21, wants to earn a master's degree.

They always thought of themselves as American, but both Tania and Carlos are still technically undocumented immigrants. "We are part of the community, and we love this country," Santiago said.

And both (along with several other immigrant college kids) backed a Tuesday proposal by Sen. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, to make undocumented immigrant students eligible for State Need Grants and state College Bound Scholarships. Murray plans to introduce the bill soon.

Murray's bill will run smack into one filed by Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver. Benton's bill would prohibit undocumented immigrants from qualifying as resident students to obtain in-state tuition and financial aid — even if they have lived in Washington for years. Several days ago, Benton contended those prospective college students are in the nation illegally and should not take aid away from U.S. citizens.

Roughly 32,000 Washington students were turned down for State Need Grants in 2012. Adding undocumented students would add a few hundred to that pool of applicants. To raise money for the extra grants, Murray cited his earlier proposal to take a capital gains tax to voters in November.

Gov. Jay Inslee and the ruling coalition in the Senate both oppose all new taxes. Still, Murray hopes that when budget figures start emerging in March, they will become more receptive to a new tax.

Murray called Benton's proposal "an unfortunate bill."

The Democratic Senator noted that the state's Latino population grew 350 percent from 1990 to 2010. He said that the bulk of the state's farmworkers — who provide most of the labor for Washington's top-ranked apple, grape, pear, sweet cherry, hops and red raspberry industries — are undocumented immigrants. Washington's agricultural production has jumped across the board since 1986: From 145 percent for pears to 805 percent for sweet cherries, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture figures.

Murray believes that taking away undocumented workers would cripple the state's agricultural dominance.

"We're making a lot of money from these people. We need to send something back to them. … We're talking about a group of people who are paying taxes [such as sales taxes]," Murray said. "These kids are on your daughter's basketball team and sit next to your son in lab and work on the same science projects."

Are Washington's Republicans likely to agree on these points? Maybe. Murray pointed to the GOP's political soul-searching after losing the Washington gubernatorial and United States presidential elections. Maybe, he speculated, GOP senators are considering a friendlier stance toward undocumented immigrants.

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