DENVER -- For the first time in a building where in-state tuition proposals for undocumented students have been debated for the last decade, three Republican senators did something historic Friday.
They voted to support the legislation.
Senate Bill 33, which got an initial okay from the full Senate Friday, was going to pass with or without any Republican votes; and with Democrats holding a large majority in the House as well, the measure is certain to finally become law this year.
But the three floor speeches by the three supporting Republicans Friday reflected the public's growing support for immigration reform -- and a divided GOP slowly coming to grips with the undeniable political power of Latino voters just months after another bruising election cycle.
"This is a country where you're supposed to be able to pursue happiness and I want the GOP to be the Grand Opportunity Party," said Sen. Greg Brophy, R-Wray, a longtime lawmaker who, until Friday, had only spoken in opposition to the bill dubbed "ASSET."
Brophy, one of the Capitol's most conservative lawmakers on many issues, explained that his thinking on the issue of in-state tuition has evolved as he's met more young Hispanic students who would be impacted by the law.
"There's some pretty great kids out there who can benefit from the passage of a bill like this," Brophy said.
He also said that former GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney's support for the self-deportation of undocumented people -- and perhaps Romney losing Latino voters by a 3-to-1 margin in November -- cemented his own personal reversal on the issue.
"We're supposed to tell these kids to just go home?" Brophy said. "They are home."
Two first-year Republican senators also joined Brophy in supporting the ASSET bill.
"I'm of the opinion that this is a very conservative idea," said Sen. Larry Crowder, R-Alamosa, who argued that it makes no sense to squander the state's investment already made in the education of undocumented students through high school.
"If we're going to finance these students for a period of anywhere from zero to 12 years, we do not want them to -- I guess some people do want them to graduate and just flip burgers," Crowder said.
"We have this shining light of prosperity in this country. We need to do everything we can for everybody we can. I realize this is going to cost money, but we are a melting pot.
Sen. Owen Hill, R-Colorado Springs, also spoke in support of the bill, which he voted to support as a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Brophy acknowledged that he and other Republicans in supporting the bill "are risking everything, politically."
A majority of the Senate Republican caucus still opposes the legislation, which will enable undocumented students who graduate from high school and have attended a Colorado school for at least three years to qualify for the in-state college tuition rate.
"It's not some sort of xenophobic, irrational fear," said Sen. Kevin Lundberg, R-Berthoud. "It's a basic respect for the way the law works and desire that we maintain that law in the future."
Lundberg told lawmakers that, to him, the acronym "ASSET" used by supporters to refer to the bill, stands for something else: "Amnesty Starts with a Small Event Today."
"It is a step of amnesty. It is saying to those who find themselves here illegally that we will not look at that status and will call you legal for the purpose of giving you in-state tuition."
S.B. 33 is up for a final Senate vote next week and will then move to the House.