Hassen ’17 testified on behalf of undocumented student bill

by Lauren Budd | 2/10/15 7:36pm

Seated before some of New Hampshire’s most senior legislators last week, Halimo Hassen ’17 drew on her personal experience in testifying on behalf of New Hampshire House Bill 675-FN,which aims to extend eligibility for in-state tuition rates to undocumented students in the university and community college systems of New Hampshire. Although the bill remains unlikely to pass, according to two experts interviewed, they praised her remarks for their poignancy.

A member and co-founder of the Dartmouth Coalition for Immigration Reform, Equality and DREAMers, also known as CoFIRED, Hassen described her parent’s journey to the United States and her brother’s winning of the Rhodes Scholarship in her remarks, which were close to five minutes in length. Although she was originally intimidated by public speaking, Hassen said, she felt compelled to testify in the hopes that her words might have an impact on the issue.

Representatives from the American Civil Liberties Union also addressed the State House.

Under current law, New Hampshire requires prospective students to provide proof of U.S. citizenship in order to qualify for in-state tuition. According to the text of HB 675-FN, undocumented students who met all other in-state tuition criteria would be able to waive this requirement provided that they had graduated from an approved New Hampshire high school or earned an equivalent New Hampshire GRE and had lived in New Hampshire for three years before obtaining the certification.

Though New Hampshire has a small undocumented population, Hassen said, she hopes advocating for such reforms in the Granite State will help set an important precedent for other states around the county.

“Having people on the floor who attend top institutions speaking on behalf of these issues makes this cause that much more visible,” she said. “People will really start to take notice.”

Hassen said she has been familiar with educational barriers for undocumented immigrants since she attended high school in Georgia, a state which prohibits undocumented students from attending its top five public universities. Although Hassen is not undocumented herself, she said, as the daughter of an immigrant family who faced economic hardship she can empathise with the plight of undocumented students.

“The fact that people were denied education really made me want to stand up,” Hassen said. “Coming from low-performing schools, getting an education was nearly impossible for me.”

Eva Castillo, a New Hampshire-based immigration activist with the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition who was in attendance at the State House, said that activists had been trying unsuccessfully for years to bring a bill addressing similar concerns as HB 675-FN to the floor. Castillo said she was particularly impressed by Hassen’s refusal to use the word “illegal” in her testimony, calling her remarks “powerful.”

“I thought it was amazing because usually we’re used to seeing adults talking, and she really did a great job,” Castillo said. “She even had some of the representatives in tears....Honestly, I was ready to cheer.”

Despite Hassen’s strong performance, however, Castillo said she is not optimistic about the bill’s passage. Although similar bills have already passed in 16 states, Castillo said that the bill had essentially been killed in New Hampshire.

Arnie Alpert, co-director of the Presidential Campaign Project of the New Hampshire chapter of the American Friends Service Committee, echoed Castillo’s assessment that the bill is unlikely to pass.

According to Alpert, the bill had been recommended as “inexpedient to legislate,” which he described as a “fancy way of saying ‘kill it.’”

Alpert, who helped draft the bill, said that the legislation was conceived in response to a prior law that would have required all students attending public colleges in New Hampshire to sign an affidavit stating that they were legal citizens in order to qualify for in-state tuition. Representative Suzanne Gottling, who sponsored the bill, did not respond to requests for comment by press time.

Although undocumented immigrants will still be able to attend universities in New Hampshire even if the bill does not advance, Alpert said, their costs of attendance will be significantly higher regardless of how long they have lived in New Hampshire. Even those who quality for in-state tuition under President Obama’s recent mandates, he added, would still not be eligible in New Hampshire.

In spite of the bill’s likely failure, Castillo emphasized that the fight for immigrant education reform — both on college campuses and in state legislatures — is far from over.

“A piece of paper does not make a person an American,” she said. “Just because we have an accent or are a different color does not prevent us from excelling.”