State bill aims to increase access to higher education for local immigrant population

Members of Mountain Dreamers, an immigrant rights community nonprofit based in Summit County, stood together in 2021 at an event. State Rep. Julie McCluskie says a new bill at the Statehouse would increase access for local immigrants to receive higher education.
Mountain Dreamers/Courtesy photo

The hospitality industry makes up the majority of Summit County’s economy, and the community’s quiet immigrant population plays a vital role in keeping the hotels, restaurants, shops and ski operations running.

While there’s no verified data that shows how many undocumented community members live in Summit County, community leaders look to data from the Summit School District to make estimates.

These numbers start to paint a picture as to how many Spanish-speaking individuals and families live within Summit. Then organizations like Mountain Dreamers, an immigrant rights community nonprofit based in Summit County, take those estimates in order to begin providing support for those families.



Peter Bakken, executive director of Mountain Dreamers, has previously said that without these working community members, Summit County’s economy would be very different.

“Without them, I think our economy would shut down,” Bakken said last summer. “Our service economy, our tourism economy, it couldn’t function without the hard work of immigrants in every sector.”



Those who do not have legal status run into many barriers, and Mountain Dreamers try to assist with these. The nonprofit provides some financial assistance to those who are applying for or renewing their application for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, otherwise known as DACA.

In other cases, Bakken said the organization frequently advocates for immigrant rights at the state level. Currently, the organization is advocating for House Bill 1155, which is intended to expand the number of undocumented high school graduates who are eligible for in-state tuition. One of the bill’s primary sponsors is local state Rep. Julie McCluskie, D-Dillon.

Javier Pineda, community organizer and program manager for Mountain Dreamers, said when he was attending Summit High School, he received enough scholarship money to attend college. For his first year of college, Pineda said he had to pay international fees which he said was about three times more than in-state tuition.

“All of my money drained pretty fast, and that didn’t give me a lot of confidence to continue my studies,” Pineda said. “This new bill will allow the opportunity for people to have access to the opportunity to attend higher education.”

Javier Pineda, one of thousands of DACA recipients in Colorado, is an active voice in the community in pushing for more solutions to provide DACA recipients with a pathway to citizenship. He currently works at Mountain Dreamers as a community organizer and program manager.
Mountain Dreamers/Courtesy photo

The new bill tweaks some requirements that were originally set in state Senate Bill 13-033, which was signed into law in 2013. The law requires undocumented individual to attend a Colorado high school for at least three years before they can receive in-state tuition . All other residents must have been in the state for one year to qualify. The law also requires that students must enroll in college within 12 months of their high school graduation. Those who graduated before 2012 are not eligible.

In his second year, Pineda was eligible to receive in-state tuition since he had attended Summit High School for at least three years.

If passed, this new bill would allow all Colorado residents of one year to receive in-state tuition, including undocumented students. It would also remove the requirement that students must enroll within 12 months of graduating, and it opens up eligibility to students who graduated before 2012.

Bakken said when the initial bill passed in 2013, it made a big difference for undocumented people.

“(The law’s) been a huge success since it started, and it’s allowed a lot of undocumented high school students in Colorado to go to college with in-state tuition,” Bakken said. “Without in-state tuition, most of them probably would not have been to college. It would have been prohibitively expensive. What this bill does is broaden it to include more Colorado high school students because it takes away some of the heavier requirements.”

McCluskie said since the initial bill was passed in 2013, circumstances have changed and that it’s time to make some tweaks. Because of the virus, many students — including undocumented individuals — waited to enroll in higher education, and doing so made them ineligible to receive in-state tuition.

Plus, as the Great Resignation unfolds in Colorado, more businesses are in need of additional staff. Removing some of the “use-it-or-lose-it” requirements would allow more individuals to go back to school and earn the training needed to fill some of these positions.

“I’m really pleased that I have an opportunity here in Denver to focus on initiatives or legislation that helps remove barriers from affordable health care or create better pathways to those jobs that provide a living wage (and) also to make sure our workforce is strong in Summit County and that we are able to fill the jobs in our community that keep our economy thriving,” McCluskie said.

Organizations and bodies to support HB 1155 include Mountain Dreamers, Colorado Mountain College, the Summit Board of County Commissioners, the Colorado Department of Higher Education and the Family & Intercultural Resource Center.

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