Central Valley

Legislators revisit immigration bill for students

State legislators are trying for a third time to pass a version of the California DREAM Act, which would open limited college financial aid to some of the estimated 25,000 undocumented students who graduate each year from California high schools.

Two identical bills are under scrutiny in committees in the Senate and Assembly, sponsored by Sen. Gil Cedillo, D-Los Angeles, and Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez, also a Democrat from Los Angeles.

The latest version of the California Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act would make undocumented students eligible for scholarships and grants offered by California's community colleges, state universities and campuses in the University of California system. It does not include the competitive Cal Grants.

Supporters say this version would largely exclude state funds. It would allow institutions to offer financial aid from funds they directly control that are fed through sources such as grants, tuition and private donations.

Sen. Jeff Denham, R-Atwater, voted no on the new DREAM Act proposal in the Senate Education Committee. He said he didn't want other students to miss out on financial aid given to the undocumented. Undocumented youths should not be punished, he said, but Congress should eliminate the problem by passing a law so youths can earn residency.

Opponents contend that all funding is public if a public institution is handling it. They predict Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is likely to veto this proposal for that reason, as he has vetoed other less restrictive versions twice before.

Under current law, university officials say they don't feel they have the discretion to distribute even private money to undocumented students.

University of California, Los Angeles, graduate Mario Escobar, a Salvadoran who now has political asylum, said he won scholarships in 2006 from UCLA's English Department. When he went to collect the money, university officials told him UCLA could not give grants – even private ones – to undocumented students.

California State University Assistant Vice Chancellor Karen Zamarripa said the DREAM Act is the "the right thing to do."

"We're not talking about millions of kids, but they are out there," she said.

She sent a letter supporting the proposal to allow undocumented students to receive institutional aid to the Senate Education Committee, where a majority of members approved the measure, Senate Bill 1301, on April 8.

Also backing that bill and Assembly Bill 2083 are the University of California and the Community College League, which said in a letter, "It is in the long-term interest of California to ensure that all residents have access to postsecondary education."

An estimated 65,000 undocumented students graduate U.S. high schools every year.

Arguing that children should not be punished for their parents' decisions, educators have urged Congress to pass a one-time federal act allowing undocumented kids who arrived before age 16 to earn residency by attending college or joining the military.

In 2001, absent such a federal solution, the California legislature approved a law to allow undocumented students to pay in-state tuition at state colleges if they attended high school in California for at least three years.

Robertino, a recent University of California, Davis, graduate, is going to a Canadian university for graduate work in medical genetics. He didn't want his last name published because he is an undocumented resident. The University of Alberta offered him a full scholarship with paid tuition and salary.

Robertino, 23, came to California from the Philippines when he was 5 years old and still is undocumented. He said he applied to the University of Southern California, was accepted but had to turn down the offer because his immigration status kept him from qualifying for enough money to cover enough of the costs.

He met recently with other undocumented Davis students – group members call themselves "underground undergrads" or "AB 540 students," a reference to the Assembly law allowing them to pay in-state fees. The students estimate there are several dozen undocumented students enrolled at Davis.

Another "underground undergrad" – an 18-year-old River City High School graduate who asked that his name not be used because he is undocumented – said he didn't bother to apply for financial aid because he knew his immigration status would make him ineligible. He and his parents are paying his fees and tuition, but he's worried he may have to drop classes because of late payments.

The 18-year-old Mexican native said he returns regularly to his high school in West Sacramento and tells other undocumented students: " 'Don't give up. You can go to college.' A lot of them don't try hard because they don't think they can go anyway."