PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Some 500 critics of Gov. Lincoln Chafee and a new policy allowing in-state tuition for undocumened immigrants at Rhode Island’s public colleges rallied Wednesday at the Statehouse, saying he is making the state a “sanctuary” for those who came to the United States illegally.
A long lineup of state legislators, tea party activists and others headlined the boisterous 90-minute rally at which crowd members waved American flags and held up signs reading “Impeach Chafee,” “Enforce our Laws” and “Yes Tea Party, No More Illegals.”
The protesters criticized not just the new tuition policy which allows undocumented immigrants to pay resident rates providing they meet certain requirements but also the way it was approved by an unelected higher education board.
“We are here to tell you, you are the governor, not a dictator,” John DePetro, a talk-radio show host at WPRO and master of ceremonies, said to cheers. “Gov. Chafee, you are not the king of Rhode Island!”
Critics said Chafee, an independent, circumvented the legislative process by urging the Board of Governors for Higher Education to adopt the change.
The board voted unanimously last week in favor of allowing immigrants in-state tuition after years of inaction by the General Assembly. Only students who attend a Rhode Island high school for at least three years and graduate are eligible, and the students have to commit to seeking legal status.
State Rep. Joseph Trillo, R-Warwick, who was among the rally’s speakers, called it “absolutely insane” that “we’re giving away the United States of America to foreign people.”
“They’re coming to every one of you, and they’re picking your pockets,” he said of undocumented immigrants. “Every dollar they can get.”
Added Keith Anderson, a teacher at an East Providence high school: “Illegal is illegal. It’s time we started helping out the taxpayers of this state.”
Earlier in the day, two groups that support the new tuition policy the Immigrants in Action Committee and the Guatemalan-American Alliance also gathered at the Statehouse to hold an appreciation ceremony for Chafee. Their event featured about a dozen children handing roses to a Chafee aide in appreciation of the governor’s support for the policy change.
Many of those who spoke against in-state tuition, both at last week’s board meeting and Wednesday’s rally, said it should not have been up to that body to decide.
Thirteen states have passed laws allowing in-state tuition for illegal immigrants, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Wisconsin later repealed its law, and Oklahoma amended its statute to allow the state Board of Regents to decide. Rhode Island is the only state to implement the policy from the start by way of a policy board decision.
State Rep. Peter Palumbo, D-Cranston, said he would co-sponsor legislation in the next session to ban in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants. Two senators said they would introduce a companion version.
Critics also denounced Chafee for recently saying he was studying the possibility of allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses.
At the pro-Chafee gathering, Juan Garcia, the main organizer for Immigrants in Action, called it “justice” to allow undocumented immigrants in-state tuition and driver’s licenses. He described immigrants as hardworking people who are contributing to the state’s economy.
“I have never forgotten where I came from,” said Garcia, of Providence, who told reporters he is now a legal resident but came to the country illegally, spending more than a day in the trunk of a car. “That’s why I taught my kids to love their country. (People) need to respect us as human beings.”