NEW HAVEN, Conn. (AP) — U.S. Rep. Jim Himes is stepping up his push for immigration reform by inviting to the State of the Union speech the coordinator of a group that advocated for students living in the country illegally to pay cheaper in-state tuition at state universities.
Himes announced Wednesday that his guest to the address by President Barack Obama next week will be Lucas Codognolla, coordinator for Connecticut Students For a Dream. After winning in-state tuition in Connecticut, the group is pushing for financial aid and against deportations.
Codognolla, a legal assistant to an attorney who recently graduated from the University of Connecticut, was a top student, Himes said. Immigration reform would boost the economy, he said.
“I think it sends a really important message to the Congress and to the American people as a whole that there really is no reason to fear immigration reform,” Himes said. “It will be an opportunity to make ourselves a much more humane country, and Lucas really, I think, symbolizes that. Immigration reform needs to wear that face.”
Himes, a Democrat, is not the first member of Congress to extend such an invitation.
Himes is highlighting an issue that is important to Hispanic and Asian immigrants in his district, which includes Bridgeport, the state’s largest city, and affluent Connecticut towns such as Greenwich. Hispanics comprise more than 18 percent of the district, up from slightly less than 15 percent in 2000, according to census figures.
“It’s very wise in terms of pure politics,” said Gary Rose, politics professor at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield. “It is a rising population group in Connecticut.”
Rose also noted that Himes is bilingual and lived in South America for part of his childhood. Himes said his background provides him with a greater understanding of the issue and raises expectations among immigrants that he’ll do something about it.
Himes co-sponsors legislation similar to bipartisan legislation that passed in the Senate last year that addressed border security, provided enforcement measures and offered a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million immigrants living in the U.S. House leaders, facing pressure from Tea Party conservatives, demanded a more limited and piecemeal approach.
Former state Sen. Dan Debicella, a Republican who lost to Himes in 2010 and is running against him again this year, said he supports Himes’ choice. He said he would support the Senate bill.
“This shouldn’t be a Republican or Democrat issue,” Debicella said. “It’s an issue of making sure the American Dream is still available for all immigrants.”
Codognolla, who was brought to the U.S. as a child from Brazil, said he qualified for a policy Obama announced in June 2012 that puts off deportation for two years for many of those brought to the United States as children. They also must be in school, graduated from high school or have served in the military and have no criminal record.
“I’m elated to be invited, especially as a political science student to be in the room with people I’ve studied and people that I love and people that I don’t necessarily agree with,” Codognolla said. “It’s going to be a great experience.”