Financial Aid for Illegal Students OK’d
MARCH 16, 2011
By DAVE ROBERTS
The Assembly Higher Education Committee approved two bills on Tuesday allowing college students who are in the state illegally to receive financial aid. Dubbed the California Dream Act, AB130 allows illegal immigrants to receive privately funded college scholarships, and AB131 allows them to receive taxpayer-funded financial aid such as Cal Grants.
Currently, illegal students who spend at least three years in California high schools pay only the in-state tuition rate — a significant cost savings over legal citizens from other states who are attending California colleges. That benefit was provided by AB540, which passed in 2001.
The AB130/131 sponsor, Assemblyman Gil Cedillo, D-Los Angeles, told the committee that while AB540 was a good first step, it does little good for undocumented students who can’t afford the lower rate.
“AB130 puts forth the proposition that we should recognize that there are young men and women in our universities and community colleges that were brought here through no choice of their own,” said Cedillo. “Young men and women who have learned our language, embraced our cultures, our values and made one choice: to work hard, play by the rules and be the best they can be. We are obligated to educate these young men and women. There is no law in this state and nation that says we should punish the children for the acts of the parents.
“The greatness of this nation is that you can come from very challenging circumstances, and within one generation you can transform your life through public education. It’s the great equalizer. California leads the nation in many areas of public policy, AB32 comes to mind. We have a chance to be very progressive about recognizing the immigrant history of this state and nation. Most importantly, to recognize a vision and dream that began with our founding fathers. This is a nation of immigrants. That is the dream and why we are here today.”
Cedillo was backed by UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau, who said that in-state tuition and housing is about $31,000 per year, adding, “UC Berkeley students are some of California’s best and brightest. This includes undocumented students who need our help. This will ensure they can attend UC Berkeley.”
UCLA Vice Chancellor Scott Waugh said that these students have it tougher than other students: “Many overcome everyday obstacles, some have long bus commutes, others sleep on friends’ couches. Despite this, they thrive at UCLA. We strongly believe they will be future leaders of California and our nation if we give them the opportunity.”
One of those students is Anna Gomez, who graduated UC Berkeley with a 3.7 grade point average. She told the committee that she has had to put on hold her plan to attend law school “because of financial difficulties. [Financial aid] would make such a huge difference in the lives of so many people and stop so many people from living a life of despair, and give them a chance to study and hope that they can attend university.”
More than a hundred people voiced support for the bills. But only one, Rowena Donnelly, the granddaughter of a farm worker who legally immigrated to this country, stood up in opposition. She is also the wife of Assemblyman Tim Donnelly R-Twin Peaks, a self-described minuteman who cast one of the two votes against the bills.
Donnelly, who is the Assembly seatmate and a friend of Cedillo, argued against the legislation’s unfairness for California’s beleaguered taxpayers, for those who chose to come here legally and for American citizens in other states who have to pay much higher tuition to attend California colleges.
“You talked about us being a nation of immigrants — you left out that we are also a nation of laws,” said Donnelly to Cedillo. “The problem with AB130 is you are looking to set a precedent that will become an incentive for more people to come here illegally. I’m a huge proponent of legal immigration. With the budget cuts, we are shrinking the number of spots available (in state colleges). The cuts haven’t even started yet – we have $5.5 billion worth of cuts. That means (openings) won’t be available for citizens or members of the military. Using taxpayer funds to essentially cheat citizens of an opportunity at the colleges at a time when that is most needed — people need to be trained for new jobs — I don’t see how this is an appropriate use of funds. Even though the cause may tug at our heart strings.”
The other vote against the bills was cast by Katcho Achadjian, R-San Luis Obispo, who was born in Lebanon to Armenian parents. He legally emigrated to the United States, “where through hard work and perseverance he was able to pursue the American Dream,” he states on his Web site. At Tuesday’s hearing, Achadjian argued that it will do little good for illegal students to graduate from college if they are not legally allowed to get a job afterwards. The focus should instead be on providing citizenship for college graduates, he said.
Addressing Gomez and another student who testified on behalf of the bills, Achadjian said, “If I want to make this country my home, I want to knock on every door to make sure somebody gives me an opportunity. We want you to be a part of our community. I can look at you with all sincerity, but that question does not leave me alone: Why aren’t you trying to become U.S. citizens?” The students were offered an opportunity to respond but declined.
Last November the California Supreme Court unanimously upheld the legality of AB540, overturning a lower court ruling. The plaintiffs seeking to overturn AB540 argued that federal immigration law banning post-secondary education benefits for illegal aliens preempts it.
“By making illegal aliens who possess no lawful domicile in the state of California eligible for in-state tuition rates, while denying this benefit to U.S. citizens whose lawful domicile is outside California, the state of California has denigrated U.S. citizenship and placed U.S. citizen plaintiffs in a legally disfavored position compared to that of illegal aliens,” is the way the lower court summed up the anti-AB540 argument.
The California Supreme Court disagreed, ruling, “It cannot be the case that states may never give a benefit to unlawful aliens without giving the same benefit to all American citizens.”
Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who argued the anti-AB540 case, may appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. In an op-ed he wrote, “It makes no sense to hand this valuable subsidy to illegal aliens when so many U.S. citizens can’t afford to attend college — even at the in-state rates. If we are going to subsidize anyone’s tuition, let’s help out our own citizens before we reward aliens who are breaking federal law by remaining in this country.”
AB130 and AB131 will next go for review by the Assembly Appropriations Committee. Cedillo co-authored AB540 and has sponsored numerous unsuccessful bills to allow illegal aliens to have driver’s licenses.
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