The college dreams of thousands of students who are illegal immigrants moved closer to fulfillment Wednesday after the state Senate approved a bill that for the first time would give them access to public financial aid.
Part of a two-bill package known as the California Dream Act, the measure would allow undocumented students who qualify for reduced in-state tuition to apply for Cal Grants, community college waivers and other public aid programs. To be eligible, they must be California high school graduates who attended schools in the state at least three years, and demonstrate financial need and academic merit.
The Senate vote brought relief to Brian Lee, a UCLA undergraduate who was brought to the U.S. at age 4 from South Korea and fell out of legal status when his mother did not renew their visas. Lee, a biology major who hopes to become a dentist, said the chance to apply for financial aid would help him finish school more quickly and alleviate the stress of working multiple under-the-table jobs. As it is, he has worked for two academic quarters to pay for each term he attends.
“I feel there is light at the end of the tunnel, finally,” said Lee, 24, who has completed just two quarters in more than two years.
Carlos Perea, a 19-year-old undocumented student from Mexico who attends Santa Ana Community College, said the bill’s passage would help him achieve his goal of transferring to a four-year university. He wants to major in political science and work for a nonprofit organization when he graduates.
But opponents decried the bill, AB 131, saying the state could not afford new spending, particularly on illegal immigrants.
“It’s against the rule of law for benefits to be given out to people here without legal status,” Sen. Doug La Malfa (R-Richvale) said in an interview. “People are just insulted. The state is out of money and we are opening a new door here for more funds to be expended.”
The measure passed 22-11 on a party-line vote, with Democratic support and Republican opposition. It is expected to return this week to the Assembly, which previously approved it, for concurrence on Senate amendments. If approved, it will be sent to Gov. Jerry Brown for his signature.
During the floor debate, La Malfa read a letter from a Chico-area resident who complained that his daughter, a U.S citizen, recently had her state financial aid cut and now must consider getting a job or postponing college.
The constituent said the bill has “shattered dreams” for college students who are legal California residents and shows that lawmakers are out of touch.
But Sen. Ron Calderon (D-Montebello) told his colleagues the measure is about rewarding young people who work hard and are good students.
“This is about promoting success,” he said. “Those who work hard, become good students, should not be punished for decisions made by their parents.”
It is not known how many undocumented students would be eligible for the aid. A Senate committee analysis estimated the bill’s cost at about $40 million. That includes $13 million for Cal Grants, which average about $4,500; up to $15 million in community college waivers; and $12 million in institutional aid from the University of California and California State University systems.