HARTFORD - A student originally from Mexico, Eric Cruz Lopez was among the most visible immigration activists on the University of Connecticut campus - up until he was charged with spray-painting expletives about President Donald Trump on the walls of school buildings.
Now his arrest is hurting the push for a bill that would allow students without legal immigration status at the state's public colleges and universities access to financial aid.
Cruz, who had testified himself in favor of the legislation, was charged on May 7 with more than 100 counts of misdemeanor vandalism. Police said he gave a statement admitting to the vandalism. He did not respond to requests for comment.
The case led state House leaders to postpone a planned vote last week on legislation that would open up $165 million in institutional financial aid to students without legal status at public colleges and universities. Those students are studying under an Obama-era executive order known as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which grants them special visas.
State Sen. Beth Bye, a West Hartford Democrat and co-chair of the legislature's Higher Education Committee, said she's still hopeful lawmakers will look past the arrest and to the bigger picture.
“It's frustrating to see this one person's action, in a moment in time, hurt the hopes and dreams of hundreds of Connecticut college students, putting their hopes and dreams out of reach,” she said. “His actions are not indicative at all of who these students are.”
Connecticut Students for a Dream, for which Cruz worked as an organizer, wrote to lawmakers distancing themselves from his actions.
The group plans a rally at the state Capitol on Wednesday to make another push for the legislation.
“For four years, we have marched, rallied, and organized for these proposals,” said Camila Bortolleto, a spokeswoman for the group. “We've won support from all of Connecticut's higher education institutions, dozens of community groups, labor unions, and legislators in both parties. ... It's resoundingly clear: Our state supports these proposals.”
But some conservatives, including commentator Ann Coulter, have latched on to Cruz Lopez's arrest as an example of why they say the students don't deserve support.
Cruz led a protest march on campus in November following the presidential election and appeared before the Board of Trustees in December to demand the school codify protections for the students after Trump said he planned to reverse the previous administration's executive order.
Cruz also has been to the Capitol several times to support the financial aid legislation. The students are currently not allowed to receive government aid, even though the money comes from a pool generated by tuition payments, to which they contribute.
Cruz, who came to the United States when he was 7 and lives in Bridgeport, testified the students simply want to be allowed to compete on a level playing field. He said he took the spring semester off because he needed to earn money to continue his studies.
“I have been worried about paying for college since I was 10, knowing that because we had to go to a food pantry to get food, paying for my education was going to be hard,” he said.
The University of Connecticut and the Connecticut State Colleges & Universities system both support the legislation, which narrowly passed the Senate but may die without getting a vote in the lower chamber.